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SIMON SAYS: Come Out to Pla-aaaaay: What Pop Culture Has Made of THE WARRIORS

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by Simon Abrams
March 21, 2012 12:57 PM
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The Warriors Beach 2


The pervasive influence of The Warriors on pop culture is pretty staggering. As an update of the Greek heroic epic Anabasis, Walter Hill’s movie strives for archetypal narrative simplicity. But like any good remake, The Warriors is also very much about its setting: a four-colored comic book caricature of crime-infested, Fun City-era ‘70s New York. The titular gang struggles to make its way back to Coney Island after an unprovoked attack suggests that they’re being stalked, but why is a mystery. The Warriors stalk through several of the city’s five boroughs, stopping over in the Bronx and Queens and then passing through Manhattan in order to finally end their long journey in South Brooklyn (Staten Island, as usual, stands alone).

So it’s interesting then to note that a new movie like The FP, an action pastiche directed by Brandon and Jason Trost that comes out this Friday. The FP, blatantly inspired by Hill’s movie, only selectively appropriates aspects of Hill’s film. The FP follows an escalating feud between two video game-obsessed gangs in Frazier Park, a small town in California. Both gangs claim to be the best at what they do and what they do is competitively dance against each other in a variation on Dance Dance Revolution. There’s no journey to get back home as in The Warriors however, in The FP, so the film’s colorful characters’ dispute is not the same as the turf-v-turf feuding at the heart of The Warriors. Because, really, The FP’s nerds are just fighting for control of a relatively homogeneous community.

But that lack of specific referentiality is pretty much par for the course, unfortunately. More often than not, references to The Warriors in pop culture, ranging from video games to rap songs, are more about the film’s costumes and catch phrases than they are about the milieu that gave birth to those costumes and catch phrases. I mean, granted, it’s a very quotable movie: iconic lines like “Can you dig it?” and “Oh, Waaaaaariors, come out and play-aaaaay,” have been sampled in everything from Wu Tang Clan’s “Shame on a Nigga” to the 1991 Sega fighting game Streets of Rage, the latter of which features a gang of baseball bat-wielding thugs who recall The Warriors’ Baseball Furies. Still, there’s something fundamentally off-putting about the way that many of these references reduce The Warriors to context-less sound bites. It’s almost as perverse as the way that Father Merrin’s ineffectual command, “The power of Christ compels you,” in The Exorcist has become a mantra for semi-jocular peer pressure. Um, you guys do remember that Max von Sydow’s character dies shortly after saying that line, right?

At the same time, there are some tributes to The Warriors that do get where their source of inspiration is coming from. I’m rather partial to the reverent set piece at the heart of actor/choreographer/director Seung-wan Ryoo’s 2006 actioner The City of Violence. Here’s a movie where a penitent gangster (Ryoo) and a police detective (Doo-hong Jung) reunite in their hometown of Onseong after a mutual friend dies at the hands of a big local gang. This gang is the crime world equivalent of an impersonal conglomerate, a point that’s driven home when their boss hires several smaller gangs to dispatch the film’s two resourceful protagonists.

This great fight scene, in a film full of great fight scenes, most successfully goes beyond the Tarantino-style of pastiche, where pop culture signifiers are divorced from their original context (The City of Violence’s last fight scene is, however, weirdly reminiscent of the orgiastic bloodbath at the end of  Kill Bill, Volume 1).

The street fight excerpted above is terrific, if only for the way it shows the various gangs—breakdancers, yo-yo slingers, field hockey players and more—converging on a single spot. Events only really come to a head in The City of Violence once all of these gangs converge on a single spot for a spectacular melee. So this scene is not the climax of the movie, but it is the plot’s critical tipping point. It’s fitting then that this scene also is the one where Ryoo pointedly and cleverly refers to The Warriors as a location-based action film. Everything comes back to Onseong, so naturally that’s where all the gangs converge.

But as long as I’m talking about The Warriors as a movie that makes burlesque out of New York City’s diverse, heterogeneous population, I should also give props to Fighting, Dito Montiel’s breezy 2009 modern-day-Rocky-in-New York. As a trenchantly New York-based filmmaker, Montiel is obsessed with self-mythologizing. For example, in A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Robert Downey Jr., who plays a version of Montiel, periodically interrupts the film’s story. In doing so, he both undermines and reinforces the veracity of Montiel’s autobiographical story of growing up in Astoria, Queens. So it stands to reason that Fighting, a movie about a young hustler (Channing Tatum) who participates in illegal street fights, should evoke The Warriors in its depiction of the colorfully partisan nature of New York’s various boroughs and neighborhoods.

To earn money, Tatum’s hero faces off with Latino gangs, Russian gangs and Asian gangs that are scattered throughout Montiel’s city. And as Tatum’s precocious meathead participates in more fights, it also becomes more apparent to viewers that these various race-based factions are united in their need to protect their respective territories. The Big Apple of Montiel’s movie has only cosmetically changed in the 30 years since The Warriors: it’s still very much a city defined by ethnic difference. Now if only we could get Spike Lee or Abel Ferrara to remake The Warriors….

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

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