‘The Warriors’ come out to play at the Ambler Theater


The neon lights of Coney Island's Wonder Wheel shine in the darkness. A subway car, lights flickering and covered with graffiti, pulls to a stop and leather-clad gang members enter. The opening shots of Walter Hill's “The Warriors,” screening Thursday, May 23 at the Ambler Theater, set the stage for what's to come: a vision of New York City that's part funhouse, part real urban grime.

Released in 1979 amid controversy and fears of real-life gang violence, “The Warriors” centers on the titular gang's odyssey through the streets of New York after the group is framed for the death of a powerful gang leader and forced to flee from the Bronx to their Coney Island home - with every other gang in the city hot on their heels. 

On paper, it appears much like the gritty New York City thrillers that flourished in the 1970s as the city faced bankruptcy and blackouts: “The French Connection,” “Taxi Driver,” and the like. But through the lens of director Walter Hill and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo, “The Warriors" becomes something much stranger and more interesting.

Influenced in equal parts by the films of Akira Kurosawa, comic books, and the ancient Greek military history “Anabasis,” the film takes the rain-slicked streets and elevated rail lines of 1970s New York and injects them with vibrant color and operatic stakes. The gangs, bedecked in intricate costumes and outrageous themes, resemble superhero teams more than any gang in the world we recognize. The tussles between gangs become balletic dances of violence that are not quite “West Side Story" but not far off the mark. Described by veteran film critic Pauline Kael as "visual rock," “The Warriors” presaged the language of music videos and the generation of filmmakers such as Spike Jonze and David Fincher that rose from the medium with its pulsing, kinetic energy.

Further separating “The Warriors” from the conventions of 1970s crime dramas is the film’s empathy for its assortment of gangs, while films such as “Taxi Driver” take the perspective of a judgmental outsider looking in. Less concerned with the social ills that led the Warriors and their counterparts to join gangs than the 1965 Sol Yurick novel from which the film is adapted, “The Warriors” treats its teenage protagonists seriously. The film presents a world with its own rules of morality and honor, conspicuously absent of all adults save the police, wherein their struggles are allowed to take on the superheroic proportions suggested by the choreography and cinematography. Only once, in a chance encounter on a subway car with kids innocently returning from their prom toward the film's end, does Hill allow the rug to be pulled out from under us and the reality of the Warriors' situation is revealed.

Critically maligned at its release, “The Warriors” has only grown in esteem in the following decades. Its visual language and pared-down narrative can be found in the likes of modern action thrillers like “John Wick” and in countless homages in television shows like “Community” and “Bob's Burgers.” 

Presented by the Ambler Theater in 35mm as part of their “Retrograde” cult film series, the 7 p.m. showing will be followed by an afterparty and trivia game at Forest & Main Brewing Company. Film fans with a taste for stylish action are invited to come out and play.

General admission is $17; seniors and youth, $15; members, $12. Ambler Theater is at 108 E. Butler Ave. Forest & Main is at 33 E. Butler Ave. For information, visit amblertheater.org.