As I’ve said, I’ve always been a lover of film and not just those which happen to fall under the Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror headings. While I’m not all that much moved by conventional Dramas and Comedies, I still take them in on occasion, especially those that have been recommended to me from the kind folks I meet along the merry way of life. Westerns and Film Noirs are also big, big, big favorites of mine (you’ll see a smattering of columns and reviews on the site covering them); but I do tend to turn my nose up with Musicals. (I just never cared for them.) And when one of these flicks inspires me to think and write about it a bit more, then I’m also apt to cover new releases of them – with the occasional review – in this space because venturing outside my preferred bubble is a solid act of creative renewal. I get to ponder questions that stretch beyond spaceships, aliens, and ray guns; and there’s nothing wrong with pushing one’s brain in a different direction entirely.
Simply put, it’s good for the soul.
Today’s diversion: The Warriors (1979) was an R-rated film I had to sneak into theaters in order to see back in the days of my reckless youth, and I’m glad I did. (I didn’t do that all too often, so, yeah, it was fun.) Though I didn’t quite relish the cinematic adventure as much as did the friends who snuck in with me, I did think it was very well made, told a solid story, and crafted a layer of tension that rarely gets seen that well done up in the lights. It had about everything any deserving tale should have – good characters, vivid scenery, a hint of romance (and some bromance), flashes of action and adventure – and I think it remains one of the better thrillers to come out of the 1970’s.
Recently, Arrow Films announced that they’d be releasing an all-new 4K Ultra HD restoration of the picture in December; and somehow I had the great fortune of scoring myself a pre-release screening copy. With a bit of glee, I sat down and spent a few hours with it – the original cut as well as a director’s version I wasn’t even aware of – so I’m happy to share my thoughts on one of the seminal films of my youth.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
“A street gang known as The Warriors must fight their way from the Bronx to their home turf on Coney Island when they are falsely accused of assassinating a respected gang leader.”
If the early 1960’s cinematic sensibilities were ultimately responsible for educating mankind to what life on the street looked like, then leave it to the late 1970’s to radically correct that portrait from the sanitized era: Walter Hill’s The Warriors – adapted in part by the director from Sol Yurick’s novel of the same name – delivered the tale of an urban nightmare of survival across the night lights of New York City’s underworld, though at times it felt a bit light in substance if not even a bit glossy with its kinda/sorta embrace of a life in crime. There’s no escaping that one truth, folks, that gangs account for a significant percentage of illegal and illicit activity wherever they do ‘business,’ but The Warriors would have you believing that these young men are just soldiers of a different sort … and nothing – in reality – could be further from the truth.
Naturally, any discussion of The Warriors practically requires an examination of the career of Hill. Today, his may not be a household name, but for those of us who grew up in the 1970’s it was certainly one we recognized. His debut picture – Hard Times (1972) – paired up screen heavyweights Charles Bronson and James Coburn in the story of illegal prize-fighting during the Great Depression. The Warriors followed a few years later, but 1981, 1982, and 1984 respectively truly put the writer/director on the map with flicks like Southern Comfort (another tale of survival thematically similar to The Warriors), the box-office hit 48 Hours (still my favorite Hill picture), and Streets Of Fire (a kinda/sorta urban Thriller also set on the city streets but given a bit of Fantasy spin). Those years alone show an incredible eye with a knack for delivering big scenes when they mattered most, and these films remain impactful – if even a bit cult – to this day.
What many don’t know is that along the way Hill was also expanding his skill set beyond just writing and directing: in 1979, he added ‘Producer’ to his resume in a big way, helping to bring Ridley Scott’s groundbreaking Alien to the silver screen. In fact, Hill’s association with the whole Alien franchise lasted all the way through the somewhat underwhelming 2017 entry Alien: Covenant, a bit of a misfire in that universe so far as this reviewer is concerned. He was a key player in delivering HBO’s award-winning Tales From The Crypt to audiences, and he left his mark on several smaller properties across the 50+ years spanning his career. A glance at his IMDB.com profile suggests that his efforts have fallen off as of late, but count me among those who’d love to see more of his catalogue given the kind of treatment Arrow Films has given this forthcoming celebration of his 1979 sensation.
So, yes, I’ll agree to having a fondness for it, most of which I honestly ascribe to my appreciation of Hill’s particularly gritty style and his handling of like-minded subject matter. The Warriors sounds, looks, and feels like a great hard-boiled novel (I’ve heard that the source material really only taps such territory), and its various characters arguably don’t have much depth beyond there respective place and circumstances. In fact, audiences learn very little about The Warriors’ war chief Swan (played by Michael Beck) and are instead merely forced to accept his leadership bona fides because ‘they are what they are.’ He never quite demonstrates a knack for inspiring others and/or team-building, and every man on his squad (mostly) goes along with his leadership because … well … that’s what one does. The only real challenge to his leadership comes from Ajax – an impressive screen job done by James Remar, one of my all-time personal favorite actors – and, yet again, we’re really only treated to their behaviors – his being rebellious – and given no wider context for who he is and why he resents authority the way he does.
However, I think it was writer, director, and actor Sylvester Stallone who once preached about the greatness of 90-minute films. (For the uninformed, The Warriors clocks in at a lean and mean 93 minutes.) Theater owners have long professed that such features give them the greatest bang for their buck – meaning that they can schedule the right number of showing for the right number of audiences to maintain peak profitability – and studios were all-to-happy back in the day to follow suit. Because thrillers and action films chiefly attract young males (with some females, too), it’s often been suggested that character is less important and can be sacrificed in favor of greater pacing along with solid action sequences. In this respect, I suppose it’s safe to safe that The Warriors fit the bill almost perfectly, dialing back such narrative nuance in favor of letting Hill truly do what he does best. Me? Well, I’d much rather a storyteller add ten-minutes to the run-time if that means I get to know a bit more about who these people are, why they behave a certain way, and maybe even a hint of what they hope to get out of life … beyond simply surviving.
None of this is meant to dismiss how effective The Warriors is at what it does best, and mostly it sets up this slim universe for the sole purpose of setting its characters in motion. On that front, it achieves a measure of greatness few followers can hope to achieve, and I think that speaks to Hill’s driving focus on the page and behind the camera. After its initial set-up, The Warriors – like its protagonists – are always in flight, be in walking or running or riding the subway. They won’t stop until they’re home, and only then do they realize that maybe such sacred pastures aren’t even safe any longer. But as it’s suggested that they somehow stood up for themselves by running and surviving, they’re granted a reprieve by the big baddies, The Riffs.
Thankfully, there was no follow-up, as that would’ve only cheapened the whole affair.
Still, sometime in 2005, Hill was encouraged to somewhat reconsider his nifty little epic with the issuance of a director’s cut. While I’m generally a fan of such ‘reconsiderations,’ I can tell you that this time the whole premise really falls flat. (In fact, I think I laughed once or twice at these weird revisions.) In a pre-taped introduction to the piece, Hill kinda/sorta alludes to the fact that he always viewed The Warriors as soldiers, though he never clarifies what war they were waging. Basically, he tacked on an opening narrative that compares these gangbangers to Greek soldiers trying to march through enemy territory, and – I’m sorry, folks – all of it felt incredibly stupid. (Thankfully, it’s very brief.) Then, he essentially reworked the existing films transitions with some curious comic book style graphics … and really? Good grief. Stick with the original, people. It’s what works best and might just be timeless all on its own.
The Warriors (1979) was produced by Paramount Pictures. DVD distribution (for this particular release) has been coordinated by the good people at Arrow Films. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert … wow. This restoration both looks and sounds absolutely fabulous, so much so that one might think all of this was originally shot on digital. (There is one scene very late in the picture that an alarming degree of grain, and I can only assume that this must be owed to an inferior source material.) If you’re looking for special features? Well, once again, this is Arrow Films; and they never disappoint. (At least, they’ve not disappointed me.) Because this is voluminous, I’m going to do the obligatory copy-and-paste from their press materials, as that’s the only way to truly do it justice. The collection boasts:
- EXCLUSIVE NEW 4K RESTORATIONS OF THE THEATRICAL AND DIRECTOR'S CUT OF THE FILM sourced from the original camera negative, supervised by Arrow Films and approved by director Walter Hill
- Theatrical Cut presented in original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 for the first time on home video
- Original uncompressed mono, plus stereo 2.0 and Dolby Atmos audio options for the Theatrical Cut, plus stereo 2.0 and DTS-HD MA 5.1 for the 2005 Alternate Version
- Optional English Subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- 100-page perfect-bound collector's book containing new writing by film critic Dennis Cozzalio plus select archival material
- Limited Edition packaging with reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Laurie Greasley
- Double-sided fold-out poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Laurie Greasley
- 6 postcard-sized reproduction artcards
- Gang logo stickers
- New audio commentary by film critic Walter Chaw, author of A Walter Hill Film
- War Stories, a new interview with director Walter Hill
- A new roundtable discussion in which filmmakers Josh Olson (A History of Violence), Lexi Alexander (Green Street), and Robert D. Kryzkowski (The Man Who Killed Hitler and then Bigfoot) discuss their love of The Warriors and the work of director Walter Hill
- Battling Boundaries, a new interview with editor Billy Weber
- Gang Style, a new interview with costume designer Bobbie Mannix
- Armies of the Night, a new exclusive look at costume designs and photographs from the archive of designer Bobbie Mannix
- Sound of the Streets, a new appreciation of composer Barry De Vorzon and the music of The Warriors by film historian Neil Brand
- Isolated score option
- Come Out to Play, a new look at the iconic locations of the Warriors' Coney Island home turf
- The Beginning, an archival extra looking back on how The Warriors came to be, featuring interviews with producer Lawrence Gordon, actor James Remar, editor David Holden and writer/director Walter Hill
- Battleground, an archival extra in which director Walter Hill and assistant director David O. Sosna look back at the difficulties of shooting on location in New York City
- The Way Home, an archival extra focusing on the look of film with contributions from director of photography Andrew Laszlo
- The Phenomenon, an archival extra featuring director Walter Hill and the cast of The Warriors
- Theatrical trailer
- Image gallery
- Archive introduction by director Walter Hill
Despite any shortcomings, this one still comes … Highly Recommended.
Dismissing the fact that The Warriors (1979) is only sparingly grounded in reality is honestly the best way to enjoy this sometimes thrilling, sometimes chilling meditation on – of all things – survival. You can throw any other themes and/or messages out the window because – in this world – these streetwise punks band together out of necessity and then stick to their colors for the same purpose: alone, they’d be struck down one-by-one, but together they just might make it home alive. Cinematography is excellent, pacing and editing is exceptional, and performances are about as good as they get in this universe. Imagine that you’re watching a carnival theme park ride into the ultimate haunted house, and this journey continues to delight decades after its initial release. Easily, this marks as one of Walter Hill’s crowning achievements.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Arrow Films provided me with a complimentary screening copy of The Warriors (1979) by request for the expressed purpose of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.