Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Warriors

An impending snow/ice storm sent us all home from work early today, so I had the opportunity to relax a bit and watch the 1979 movie The Warriors, at the suggestion of a lady-friend.

The movie is about a New York City gang who's wrongly believed to have killed a sort of urban gang messiah. They're then forced to fight their way back to their home turf through an assortment of "theme" gangs. It's based loosely on a novel of the same name by Sol Yurick.

The first thing that struck me is that each gang's "colors" were outrageous. The Warriors all sported leather vests and looked pretty normal, but rival gang The Baseball Furies wore modified Yankees uniforms and face paint which borrowed heavily from Kiss. Another gang, The Punks, all dress in overalls and striped shirts. The High Hats all appear as mimes. It was a kind of disturbing visual at first, seeing these often over-the-top designs, but there was a consistency to it throughout the movie that seemed to click after a little while.

The almost iconic visuals make even more sense with the Director's Cut. (I haven't seen the original, but I can guess what some of the changes were.) Scene transitions often have the live action sequence fade into a still-frame illustration, which then pans back to reveal the story as a comic book before zooming in on another comic book panel. New locations are then identified with caption boxes filled with Comic Sans lettering.

This idea of the story as a comic book is emphasized directly in the director's opening comments, and the additional documentary about the film. He very clearly saw the movie as a live-action comic book with many of the same larger-than-life images that one can find in almost any superhero book. The costumes are a bit too outlandish for real life. The fight scenes aren't terribly gorey or bloody, but they have a violence to them that would almost certainly have killed all the characters within the first 20 minutes if it were real.

Watching the movie with those hints in mind, it was easy to see that many, if not most, of the shots were framed very deliberately throughout the film. It struck me very much as a photographic visual precursor to Sin City. This is again amplified by most of the scenes taking place at night with strong solitary light sources.

What was refreshing, though, was that even with director Walter Hill's deliberate and conscious attempts to borrow elements from comic books, the movie is treated with complete seriousness. The characters, while slightly exaggerated like a comic book, are still real. There's no pandering or looking down at the comic medium as you would typically have seen back then. The Batman TV show still had a powerful impact on how people treated comic books and superheroes, but Hill went against that. The action and the drama here are heightened while the visuals are made more iconic, all like a comic, but the movie does not denigrate itself with camp.

I understand the movie had some reasonable commercial success, and is regarded highly in some circles. (Indeed, that lady-friend who suggested it to me cited it as her favorite.) As I said, I don't know for certain the changes that were made for the Director's Cut, but Hill claims that it's closer to what he intended than the original release. If that's true, then the movie's comic book roots are unmistakable and it's definitely a film worth watching for comic fans.

1 comment:

Mickey said...

Howdy, my friend... long time no talk!

The Warriors is oddly held in very high esteem in Washington DC with Warrior-themed parties even popping up occasionally. The latest such party was just last Halloween at DC's Rock and Roll Hotel.

Personally, I don't get it, but then I don't like mimes or baseball players all that much.