[Editor’s Note: Welcome to “Stream This,” our weekly feature where we single out television programs and movies of considerable merit that are available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Crackle, or other streaming services. Look for a new Stream This every week.]
No one has quite held onto the mantle of B-movie maverick the way Walter Hill has over the years. Even his most recent films, such as the Sylvester Stallone-fronted Bullet in the Head and the prison-boxing thriller Undisputed, have run on fleet, forceful pacing and decisive editing that favors tightness and visceral action over plot or grandiose passages of dialogue. In his salad days, however, Hill’s films hit like a blast of pure chaotic, physical conflict, lined with expertly unfurled set-pieces and distinct characters that were equally drawn with theatrical indulgences in the script and personal, revealing moments of performance. These elements can be found in his first two masterworks, The Driver and Hard Times, but are perhaps best exemplified in his third feature, 1979’s The Warriors.
Now, if you’ve gone to a liberal arts college, you have more than likely heard of The Warriors, which follows a New York City gang who have been framed for the assassination of Cyrus (Roger Hill), a wise kingpin and natural leader of all criminal activity in NYC. At this point, the film has been co-opted by hipsters, who have fetishized a great deal of the film’s costume design and sympathetic view of street justice, but that hasn’t diluted the film’s unpredictable beats, stunning on-location shooting, or how convincing Hill renders this invented world where flamboyant crime syndicates run portions of the five boroughs. “Can you dig it?” yells Cyrus in front of a gathering of all the gangs, and his message clearly transcends the want for criminals to rule over those who don’t have the will to do the same. Ultimately, Hill’s film is about revolution, and how dangerous an idea that can be to people, even those who purport to support the rise of the meek, marginalized, and, occasionally, criminal.
The blame for Cyrus’s death lays at the feet of the Warriors, led initially by Cleone (Dorsey Wright) and then, finally, by Swan (Michael Beck), and this causes them to go racing from Pelham Bay Park, in the Bronx, to their home in Coney Island, at the tip of Brooklyn, with a variety of other gangs attempting to do them in along the way. This includes both the Baseball Furies and the Lizzies, but the Warriors’ main villain is Luther, played by the great character actor David Patrick Kelly, and the Rogues, the group behind Cyrus’s murder and the framing of the Warriors. Hill conveys the undeniable danger of the five boroughs at the time, but never feels moved to stress the realistic horrors that were visited upon any number of denizens. When one of the Warriors gets run over by a subway train while running from the cops, the writer-director doesn’t focus on the character’s helplessness or the tragedy of the event, but rather moves on to follow the rest of the Warriors as they try to get back home. Hill’s New York City is hard, cold, and largely uncaring in response to death and pain but it’s not inherently filled with evil people, or shown to breed a particular type of nemesis. It demands self-reliance and constant awareness of one’s surroundings, and doesn’t wait for any of these characters to catch up when they grow panicked or simply unlucky.
As the dash home to Coney Island continues, with Cyrus’s gang, the Gramercy Riffs, holding sway over the hunt and constantly on their heels, Hill finds time to explore internal conflicts over power in the gang, as well as introduce a fascinatingly unromantic love story between Swan and Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), the stray sister of one of the heads of a low-tier gang, The Orphans. With the power struggle specifically, Hill explores the very idea of leadership and masculinity, as Swan’s primary focus is getting as many of his men home safe as possible, while fellow Warriors Ajax (James Remar) and Cochise (David Harris) seem more interested in getting into a fight or getting laid, wrapped up in their own swagger and publicity.
As such, The Warriors could be seen as a manifesto for Hill’s efficient yet by no means clinical directing style, a symbol of his belief in getting films made rather than seeking out more ambitious ideas or formalistic experiments. Even Swan’s relationship with Mercy is distant and uncaring, until the showdown at Coney Island between the Warriors, the Rogues, and the Riffs. The film quietly extols a workmanlike philosophy of style and storytelling in the Warriors’ drive to return to the terrain that they fully control, with a brutal, direct view of violence and a ironclad belief in survival over all else. And considering that Hill has continued to make the films he’s wanted to for some 35 years or so, he’s uniquely qualified in displaying how to survive in the most hostile and unlikely of environments.
The Warriors is currently streaming on Amazon Instant Video.