If the ’70s action movie has one iconic signature villain, it’s the street punk—the wild-eyed young longhair, hopped up on some mysterious substance or other, giggling while terrorizing decent hard-working folk. In movies like Dirty Harry or (especially) Death Wish, steely-eyed urban-vigilante types gunned them down with near-impunity. In Assault On Precinct 13, John Carpenter turned them into silent ghouls. So maybe it’s appropriate that the decade in action movies ended with Walter Hill’s The Warriors. This isn’t just a movie that humanized the street punk. It’s one that existed entirely within the world of the ’70s teenage gang, one where the heroes and villains and authority figures all live that life. It’s a movie that built a whole universe around them.
In The Warriors, virtually every character is in one gang or another. Even the police in the movie act more like a hostile gang than any recognizable force of law and order. When the mythic Gramercy Riffs leader Cyrus makes his grand, sweeping speech in a Bronx park at the beginning of the movie, he’s not calling for peace. He’s calling for all the gangs to unite to fight the cops, and the movie treats him like a heroic martyr for saying it.
The movie’s best scene—better than the Cyrus speech, better than the entrance of the wraithlike and absurd Baseball Furies—might be the one where our heroes the Warriors, the Coney Island gang that’s spent the entire movie fighting to get back home while every other gang in the city chases them, finally come face-to-face with four people, around their age, who, weirdly enough, are not involved in any gang life. It’s two boys and two girls, all done up in frilly ’70s prom getups (or maybe disco go-out clothes). (If my New York geography is right, they might be in Bensonhurst, the same Brooklyn neighborhood where Saturday Night Fever had taken place a couple of years earlier.) They get on the train giggling, maybe slightly drunk. They look up and see the Warriors, covered in subway grime and battle scars, all proudly staring hard at them. The prom kids immediately fall silent and, at the next stop, go scrambling for the exit. They don’t want any part of the Warriors’ world.
Now, The Warriors is a deeply silly movie. Its gangs are ridiculous comic-book figures. There were real colorful gangs in New York at the time; in the great documentary 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s, you’ll see guys with towering afros and the words Savage Skulls intricately painted on their leather vests. But The Warriors, with its baseball mimes and its sociopathic Ramones clones and its bus full of angry skinheads, pushes proudly forward into cartoonish unreality. Still, director Walter Hill, one year removed from the great existential car-chase movie The Driver, treats its world with total seriousness. Bleak synthesizer drones thrum and throb. The streets glow with slickly inky-black greasiness. Nobody smiles. It’s so awesome.
The plot is so beautifully simple. The city’s greatest gang leader—the head of what appears to be an army of kung-fu Black Panthers—calls representatives of every prominent gang in the city to a meeting in a Bronx park, seemingly ushering in a new golden era of gang unity. Instead, one gibbering psycho shoots him dead. (When another character asks him why, he only offers this: “No reason. I just like doing things like that.”) In the confusion, he yells that the Warriors did it. And so the Warriors, caught up in the chaos, have to fight their way back home—taking a subway journey that, as any New York resident will tell you, could take all night even if you don’t have to deal with track fires or angry baseball mimes. Some of them will make it back, and some won’t. The story, adapted from a 1965 Sol Yurick novel, uses the real geography of New York to build a classical odyssey.
The Warriors imagines a whole world, with its own codes and customs and taboos. The Warriors, for instance, won’t take off their jackets just to walk through the territory of another gang, the hapless Orphans. They’d rather fight their way through than “hide who we are.” In the story’s main romantic arc, the hero threatens to run a train on his eventual ladyfriend, a chivalrous offer that is not the sort of thing you see in every movie. Yet the movie never judges its characters. It takes this world at face value. Years later, Hill told Esquire, “[The movie] didn’t present the gang and gang structure as a social problem. It presented it as simply a fact, the way things are, and not necessarily negative. It presented them from their point of view.” Decades later, when Rockstar turned the movie into a video game, it didn’t feel like a stretch; Hill had already built that virtual world.
Hill managed to pull all this off while working with a small budget, a cast of mostly unknown actors, and a studio that didn’t particularly understand or care about what he was trying to do. (Hill wanted Orson Welles narration, and he also wanted comic-book art inserts. He got the comic inserts when he put them in a directors’-cut DVD years later, and everyone unanimously hated them, giving us one of those rare situations where the studio suits were right to say no to the genius auteur. So it goes.) Hill also had to deal with on-set chaos—one character dies under subway-train wheels because Hill and the actor didn’t get along—and the presence of the real gangs in New York at the time. He’s told a story about how, at one point, real gang kids were pissing on the cast and crew from a subway overpass. Through all this, Hill still made an enduring cultural artifact that also happens to be a fucking great action movie.
The fights in The Warriors look a little primitive now, but they’re far beyond what you’ll see in most of the American movies of the era. Stunt coordinator Craig R. Baxley put all the actors through a crash course in stunts, and he built some great chaotic-but-coherent brawls, like the fight with the Baseball Furies, who might be the movie’s most memorable characters even if they lose their one big fight way too easily. (I would happily become a Baseball Fury today if invited. I’d learn how to do the facepaint and everything.) Baxley also played the roller-skating leader of the Punks, the overalls-wearing gang who fight the Warriors in the Union Square bathroom, and he’d go on to direct some great action movies of his own, like Action Jackson and the stone-cold classic Brian Bosworth vehicle Stone Cold. He knew what he was doing.
There aren’t any other movies like The Warriors, and none of its actors went on to become stars, though James Remar (Ajax) and David Patrick Kelly, who played sniveling villain Luther, both developed great character-actor careers. (A few years later, in Commando, Kelly was perhaps the most iconic kill of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career: “Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last? I lied.”) So I can’t really call it an influential movie. But it endures. It’s endlessly quotable, endlessly re-watchable, and it flipped the values of ’70s action movies on themselves. It’s something special. It’s a miracle. And as Cyrus says, miracles is the way things ought to be.
Other notable 1979 action movies: The obvious runner-up for 1979 would have to be Mad Max, a zero-budget Australian movie that turned out to be vastly important for a lot of reasons. It was the directorial debut of George Miller; it helped introduce the post-apocalyptic action movie; it showed just how nasty you could make a car chase without spending any money; and it inaugurated one of the greatest action franchises ever. I’d argue that at least two of the later movies in the series are both better and more important, but that original, with its raw ugliness and its unbelievable stunts, is still an all-timer.
Beyond the two above films, though, 1979 was a pretty rough year for action movies. Moonraker, despite a mind-boggling opening skydiving stunt sequence that I still have to watch through my fingers, is easily the dumbest and silliest of the Roger Moore Bond movies, and that is saying something. All these years later, the Bond franchise’s attempt to bite Star Wars might still be the most craven moment in a series that’s always been pretty craven. Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood staged a heroic prison break in Escape From Alcatraz, but he threw almost no punches in the process. And while the early Sammo Hung vehicle Magnificent Butcher has some groundbreakingly intricate fight scenes, it also has a whole lot of godawful slapstick comedy. Then there was A Force Of One, with Chuck Norris as a karate master chasing a serial killer, and Search And Destroy, a minor entry in the wave of revenge movies about returning Vietnam vets.
Next time: The ’80s officially begin as Chuck Norris introduces an entire generation of school kids to the ninja in The Octagon.