Tough turf

The Warriors at the Red Vic

CULT FILM "WAAAR-ee-erzzz — come out to PLAAY-ee-ay!" This catchphrase, first spoken in an annoyingly unforgettable singsong (and supposedly improvised) by actor David Patrick Kelly, has infiltrated pop culture to the extent that it's been sampled or mimicked by musicians from Twisted Sister to the Wu-Tang Clan to the Offspring. If you don't know — how could you not? — it's from The Warriors, Walter Hill's 1979 urban action joyride. Revived this weekend at the Red Vic Movie House (hardly for the first time), The Warriors barely rippled across the radar of most respectable critics at the time (though the New Yorker and the New York Times liked it). Yet it's grown more beloved and influential than all the prestige releases of 1979 combined (Apocalypse Now possibly aside). I mean, who quotes lines now from Kramer vs. Kramer or Norma Rae?

Based on a 1965 novel by Sol Yurick (very loosely, which he did not appreciate), the film finds nine representatives of Coney Island's Warriors gang journeying in their scruffy-sexy little leather vests all the way to the Bronx. There, messianic Cyrus (Roger Hill) of the Black Panthers–like, paramilitaristic Gramercy Riffs has called a summit for all 100 New York City gangs. Saying their combined 60,000 soldiers could take over the city against a measly 20,000 cops if they united forces, he bellows, "We got the streets, suckers! Caaaan youuuu diiiiig iiiiitttt?"

Just cuz he can, weasly li'l psycho Luther (Kelly) of the Rogues chooses this moment to assassinate Cyrus. Amid the subsequent pandemonium, Luther pins the blame on the Warriors, whose black leader, Cleon (Dorsey Wright), is promptly lynched. This conveniently leaves the cutest white boy — Andy Gibb–coiffed, clench-jawed Michael Beck as Swan — in charge. He has to get the remaining Warriors, now pursued by every gang and cop around, safely home from "27 miles behind enemy lines." Their breathless all-night journey includes altercations with myriad rival units, all outlandishly outfitted in matching costumes: the Baseball Furies wear pinstripe uniforms and KISS-style makeup; the Punks look more like pop rockers, with overalls and a shaggy-haired boss on roller skates. Other groups look like mimes (now that's tough), disco funksters, ninjas, and so on. Luther's guys resemble extras from Scorpio Rising. The Lizzies are, uh, lezzies, though they pretend otherwise to entrap some easily dick-led Warriors.

Movies from the '70s often seem idly paced now, yet The Warriors moves like greased lightning. There's nonstop action yet surprisingly not all that much serious violence, save at the beginning and the end. But it didn't seem that way to most observers in early '79, when word quickly spread of gang beatdowns and three alleged murders taking place in or outside screenings. (Easy to see why actual gang members flocked to the movie — it flatters them with a fantasy of gang life as unflappable, thrill-a-minute, dark-superhero coolness.)

Naturally, there were also rumors that these reports were fake — drummed up by either the studio or procensorship types to create controversy. In the unlikely case that Paramount was behind it, its strategy certainly backfired, since the studio ended up having to pull ads and some prints and bankroll security at certain theaters. (Nonetheless, the film did pretty well nationwide.)

There were regrettable consequences for other movies too. Their suddenly skittish distributors didn't do jack to promote two terrific movies now tainted by the gang label: Philip Kaufman's wonderful The Wanderers, which was more an American Graffiti–style nostalgic flashback than anything else, and Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge, a brilliant suburban-teen-revolt study.

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