What exactly makes a cult classic? To nail down any singular definition is impossible, especially when those two simple words can encompass so many types of films. Some films are simply released at the wrong time, destined for short-term failure just by circumstance only to finally find respect years down the line, such as John Carpenter’s The Thing, which stood no chance against Steven Spielberg’s E.T. in the summer of 1982 but eventually came to be revered as the masterful work of horror and suspense that it is today. Other films are simply such spectacular disasters that people love them for it, taken in by the bizarre charm radiating from their exuberant ineptitude, the perfect example, of course, being Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.
There are numerous other ways films can rise up to cult status, but I would argue that the common thread connecting them all is simply the idea that - to use that old chestnut of an idiom - one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I, for one, can’t sit through The Room from beginning to end. It’s funny in doses and undeniably quotable, but it’s not “for me,” despite the fact I know people who can watch it a hundred times and never get sick of it. And I would never fault them for that, as who am I - or anyone else, for that matter - to tell them they shouldn’t enjoy it. Film as an art form is rightfully subjective, and nothing proves that more than the fundamental concept of cult films.
This week, I found myself motivated to finally check out The Warriors, the 1979 cult classic that, for one reason or another, always seemed to me like the type of film that was invitation-only; that is, one of those rare films that can only truly be introduced to you by someone who loves it rather than something you dip your toes into alone. With the recent announcement that Joe and Anthony Russo - who have been involved with projects I adore ranging from the last two Captain America movies to shows like Community and Arrested Development - are putting together a TV adaptation of it, I figured it was time to skip past the invite and see for myself what the big deal is.
Now, I wasn’t wholly unfamiliar with the film going into it. At this point, it’s hard not to be able to quote some of its most popular lines offhand, like “Can you dig it?” and “Warriors, come out to play.” I could recognize a bit of its imagery, such as the overall look of the gang themselves, and I knew several of the actors from their later projects, including James Remar and David Patrick Kelly. On the surface, I had been exposed to it over the years just to the point where it could retain the mystery behind whatever thematic exploration and narrative twists and turns were awaiting me, and I can’t deny that I was surprised at what I found.
The film kicks off with the Warriors joining an assembly of their fellow New York-based gangs, all brought together by Cyrus, the charismatic leader of the biggest gang of all. Cyrus wants to unite all the gangs in an effort to take full control of the city, an idea that the majority of those present quickly get behind, but before he can follow through, he is gunned down by Luther, the leader of a gang known as the Rogues, who quickly manages to frame the Warriors in the ensuing chaos. As a result, the Warriors - unaware they’ve been framed and that Cyrus’s gang has put out a hit on them - must fight their way across the city to survive the night and return home to Coney Island.
Beyond that setup, there’s not much else to the film, as the Warriors simply move from one beat to the next, the entire narrative structured similarly to the most stripped down of video games. Each new area they enter - a turf run by a lesser gang, a city park, an apartment building, a bathroom, etc. - has a new boss battle, so to speak, waiting for them, from cops to other male and female gangs, all with gimmicks of their own, like a gang comprised entirely of guys dressed up as baseball players and wearing colorful face paint.
Along the way, the group’s numbers dwindle, as arrests are made and losses are suffered, but such events don’t really carry weight thanks to the fact that time isn’t really taken out to expand on the characters as individuals beyond giving them the broadest of traits. At one point, a character is killed during a skirmish with a cop that none of the gang is present for after they’ve all been forced to split up, but despite not knowing where he is, no one so much as brings him up or suggests to look for him once they’ve all reassembled. He is never even mentioned again by anyone, his death (or even just his absence) leaving behind no emotional or narrative impact, begging the question of why he was even included in the first place.
However, the characters’ lack of personal development does help play into the fact that the film never lets them off the hook. Even if we had been made privy to who these guys are as three-dimensional people, they’re still gang members at their core. They talk about thieving. They harass random strangers. Senseless violence is nothing out of the ordinary. Women are spoken about as if they’re objects. At least one member is demonstrated as a potential rapist. To try and humanize them further would risk justifying their actions, and it could be argued that when said character dies and we don’t feel anything, that’s the point. These are our protagonists, but in every respect in the context of our real world, they should be anything but, undeserving of our sympathies because of the choices they’ve actively made, the film almost challenging us to root for criminals being hunted by other criminals simply because they were wrongly accused of a horrible crime they’ve probably committed before anyway.
This idea stretches even further when one looks at how the city itself is presented. The Warriors’ journey takes them through a New York City that’s grimy and disgusting, shadowy and dangerous. Whether they’re roaming the streets or riding the subway, nowhere is safe, and even once they make it back “home” to Coney Island, it’s a grim and desolate place. Unlike so many other films where NYC is presented as a city worth visiting, The Warriors showcases it as a wasteland of despair, one where good may be losing a battle against evil, reinforcing the idea that the Warriors and all the other gangs, all stuck in their endless cycle of machismo and violence, have only made this miserable bed for themselves and have no right to complain they don’t want to lay in it.
There’s not a whole lot of hope presented in the film, and though a single romance is built into the narrative, it didn’t quite click for me as a result of a lack of chemistry between the two involved. Even beyond that lack of spark, there’s not much here of note from most of the actors regardless. As I mentioned, the characters themselves are painted in such broad strokes that even if that serves to forward the overall theme, it gives no one anything to really chew on, leaving a number of stiff performances behind by those who don’t quite throw themselves into playing it memorably over-the-top like Remar and Kelly.
All this is not to say that the film itself is devoid of life, though. The varied costuming of all the different gangs is of note, leading to some humorously creative choices like a gang full of guys dressed as mimes. It has a funk-filled soundtrack that’s almost like hearing the film’s heartbeat, darkly juxtaposing the needless violence against soulful music. And it employs a neat trick in using a female radio DJ to subtly transmit updates on the hunt for the Warriors to all the gangs, her commentary serving as a unique and lively way to punctuate the action like a play-by-play of a sports game. It’s these types of elements that help elevate an otherwise straightforward film into something more, giving it the type of divisive personality that cult films of its ilk thrive on.
The Warriors isn’t some outstanding revelation of a film, nor is it necessarily groundbreaking, at least from a modern day perspective. Like its characters, it’s always moving forward, unconcerned about looking back or stopping to contemplate anything but where it’s headed lest it get tripped up from standing still too long. Having never read the book upon which it’s based, I can’t comment on its strength as an adaptation, but as a film standing on its own legs, it has a little to notably say about gang culture and its endless cycle of violence that’s still relevant today - even if it’s really shallow in exploring such themes - all wrapped up in a funky, gritty final product. Ultimately, though, the film will only give you whatever you want out of it, whether it’s something you seek to find deeper meaning in, something that’s merely an exercise in streamlined storytelling, or something with no merit at all, and it’s no surprise that it remains a cult classic all these years later for that fact alone.
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