Any list of the coolest movies ever made is invalid if it does not mention The Warriors. There are few times when I will say that a movie is unquestionably worthy of praise, that the movie's brilliance is an actual fact, but The Warriors is simply cool. There can be no question, from the pulsating montage that opens the film to the final shot that hangs out behind the end credits, that Walter Hill and company made a gangland epic that is without equal.
The trick to understanding just how cool The Warriors, however, is realizing that it's more than just a gang movie. A short sighted viewer with strict morals might look at the film as an excuse to show gang violence and a glorification of the lifestyle. It's hard to argue against that to an extent - the fact is that everyone in the movie is a member of a criminal organization (unless they're a cop) - but it's more important to look at the film's reality instead of our reality. In the film's world, where the late night hours in New York City seem to belong only to the gangs, the only thing that matters is survival. And in that reality, it's easy to start seeing that The Warriors has its heart in a much less sinister place.
If you're unfamiliar with The Warriors - and I'm incredibly sorry if you are - the basic set-up is very simple. All of the "major league" gangs in New York City have agreed to send nine delegates to a meeting in the city where Cyrus, president of the top gang in the city, has something to say. It's supposed to be a peaceful discussion, with Cyrus giving one of the all-time most iconic speeches on film, except that one ornery gang decides they don't like it and shoots Cyrus dead. The ensuing scuffles sees the title gang, a rather vanilla outfit in red leather vests from Coney Island, accused of the murder and having their "warlord" slain, leaving the eight remaining members to try and get home while every gang in the city is ordered to hunt them down by Cyrus' disciples.
If this idea was pitched today, it's hard to see it being made as a film and not a video game. The set up is almost perfect for that medium; starting with a short intro and a crisis that puts the heroes in peril and then allowing waves of opponents of varying skill and difficulty to challenge them on their way to their goal. It makes perfect sense that The Warriors was adapted for consoles by video game giant Rockstar Games in 2005 (it's actually one of the better film-to-video-game adaptations out there), and looking at the film after seeing that game makes it almost impossible for me to not look at the film as a video game movie that was made in advance.
With such a simple premise, it's everything else in the film that Hill manages to make so cool. That really begins with Cyrus, the idealistic Jesus figure whose "Can you dig it?" exclamation has become a pop culture mainstay. The actor who plays Cyrus, Roger Hill, is just one of the relatively unknown actors in the film (there are a few recognizable faces, but the biggest star of the film is probably Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? hostess Lynne Thigpen as the mostly unseen disc-jokey who advances the plot a few times), but his one-scene performance perfectly makes us accept the film's conflict. Other performances vary in quality - lead Michael Beck seems to spend most of his time standing very still and looking concerned-but-chill, while seedy David Patrick Kelly is perfectly unhinged as the unhinged little gangster who is responsible for The Warriors' plight - but everyone seems to be adequate for their part in the film.
By traditional standards The Warriors probably doesn't measure up to most filmmaking standards, and it's easy to see why critics in its time primarily wrote it off as a failure. But the intangibles that make The Warriors such a memorable and enjoyable film have maintained for nearly 35 years, and now we're at the point where the film is certainly one of the most loved cult films out there. Forget the plot, forget the gang affiliation, forget that the lead is there because of his abs - just sit back and experience The Warriors. You'll be glad you did.