Sunday, March 23, 2014

Movies I Grew Up With: The Warriors

I've been a bit of an insomniac for as long as I can remember. So it's no surprise that my first encounter with many of the movies I grew up with occurred long after sundown on ABC's "The Late Show." It's where I saw such classics as Blacula, The Car, and today's subject, The Warriors. I was probably eleven or twelve years old the first time I saw it and I was hooked right from the start. By the pounding score that opens the film, the trains barreling through the New York City subways (which I was fascinated by since I actually knew some of the men in the neighborhood who worked for New York Transit Authority), hordes of young men in small cliques that all dressed alike boarding these trains headed for something they're not sure about, a sense of mystery was created. I just had to know what was going on. We quickly find out that these cliques are nine representatives of the city's various gangs. When they got to this big meeting, we see them all surrounding a makeshift stage. It's a scene that literally uses a thousand people, most of them extras. It's a pretty striking visual to introduce us to this world.

Then Cyrus (Roger Hill) speaks.

In true 1970s fashion, this was released theatrically in 1979, he asks us all "Can you count, suckas?" He then proceeds to run down how the gangs can take over New York due to the sheer manpower numbers and there is nothing the police can do about it, provided the gangs work together. To get his audience riled up, both in person and those of us watching from the safety of our mother's living rooms, he asks "Can you dig it?" But wait, it's more of an declaration, certainly an exclamation, rather than a question so I'll change the punctuation so you can understand. He says, "Can you dig it! Can you dig it! CAN YOU DIG IIIIIIIIIIITTTTTT!"

The crowd goes wild.

Then Cyrus is shot.


We saw the guy who actually did the shooting, but no one else did. He tells everyone it was the Warriors. Cleon (Dorsey Wright), the leader of the Warriors happens to standing in a crowd of guys belonging to the Gramercy Riffs, Cyrus' gang. They put a beat down on Cleon and we never see him again. The remaining eight Warriors get away as the police show up. Now they have to make it back to their home turf of Coney Island. One little problem. Every gang in the city is after them.

From there, the movie is just a huge chunk of teenage boy/juvenile delinquent fantasy. The gangs all dress alike in the most amazing and/or awful outfits to ever grace the silver screen. Our heroes themselves opt for blue jeans and a brown leather vest that most wear without a shirt underneath. The Riffs mostly wear orange gais and all know martial arts. There are also the Turnbull AC's with their all denim look and bald heads. The Boppers are decked out in black dress shirts, purple vests, purple ties, purple fedoras, and white slacks. Nothing says 'gangsta' like white slacks. The Hi-Hats rock red shirts with black stripes down the sleeves, black suspenders and pants, and yes, they wear top hats. Oh, they also have their faces painted like mimes. Speaking of face paint, this brings us to the most famous gang of them all aside from the Warriors themselves, the Baseball Furies. Yes, their faces are all done up as well, but that's not what people remember most about them. Their outfit is a full blown baseball uniform, complete with cleats and a bat. I say 'Wow!' every time I see this movie.

Okay, we just gotta take a break for those of you who haven't seen it to understand the type of outfits I'm talking about...

The Warriors

The Gramercy Riffs

The Boppers

The Hi-Hats

The Baseball Furies

Got it? Good. Let's move on...

I've seen this movie God-knows-how-many times. No matter how often I watch it, I have a blast. Swan (Michael Beck), who takes over leadership of the Warriors after Cleon goes down is the coolest dude in the world. His butting heads with the hotheaded Ajax (James Remar) gives us some juicy tension within the group. The local radio DJ spinning tunes that serve as code for the gangs around the city while also giving them a play-by-play of the pursuit of our heroes is a stroke of cinematic genius. Masai (Edward Sewer), who takes over the Riffs is just as scary as Swan is cool. Of course, there's a girl. Her name is Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh). She's tough and just kinda hangs around until Swan takes a liking to her. Speaking of girls, Mercedes Ruehl, whose credits include Last Action Hero, Big, and Married to the Mob, shows up as an undercover cop. Even a young Debra Winger shows up as an extra. Finally, David Patrick Kelly is just plain nutty as Luther, the leader of the Rogues and the man who shot Cyrus.

Back when I was a kid, I feel old just typing that, there were gangs. They were dangerous, but were not anywhere near the scourge on society the way we currently think of them. In terms of pop culture, we thought more of West Side Story or one of those outfits that had a run-in with The Fonze on Happy Days. Not quite on the same level, is it? The Warriors is a 1979 movie that exists as a midway point between the two extremes. These guys still have a predilection for looking goofy by dressing in matching outfits, but taking a life is sometimes part of the deal. They fall somewhere between West Side Story and Colors. Their attire would have them fit right in with the Sharks and the Jets. However, they aren't nearly so innocuous as to be doing musical numbers. On the other hand, they aren't the outright banes of urban humanity, the way they are in Colors. Or in real life.

That real life part is what makes The Warriors a little bit troublesome for me as a father. It can certainly be seen as a glorification of gangs. However, these gangs are so cartoonish they don't much resemble anything my kids have actually heard of, or possibly encountered. To be honest, it helps that these are a multicultural collection of knuckleheads and there are barely any guns present. A movie glorifying a cast solely consisting of Black and Latino young men would probably seem much more harsh to me. Cast as it is, it has more of a 'we're all knuckleheads' kind of feel. And like I said, it's a bit on the goofy side. So the thought of my son running out and joining a gang after seeing it never entered my mind. He watched and wondered what kind of madness I was showing him. My youngest daughter did the same, out loud, right at the beginning. As we see all of the different gangs assembling for the big meeting where Cyrus would meet his end, she said "If I see one more group all dressed up alike I'm going to scream." No, I hadn't warned her beforehand. She didn't scream, but she did roll her eyes really hard. By the end, they were both into it. And they both wanted to slap me as I sang along with Luther on his now famous deranged taunting of our heroes, "Warriors, come out to play-yay!" I just couldn't help myself. I won't be able to help myself next time, either.

R.I.P. Roger Hill AKA Cyrus
Jul. 31, 1948 - Feb. 25, 2014

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