“The Warriors” is a real peculiarity, a movie about street gang warfare, written and directed as an exercise in mannerism. There’s hardly a moment when we believe that the movie’s gangs are real or that their members are real people or that they inhabit a real city.
That’s where the peculiarity comes in: I don’t think we’re supposed to. No matter what impression the ads give, this isn’t even remotely intended as an action film. It’s a set piece. It’s a ballet of stylized male violence.
Walter Hill, the director and co-writer, specializes in fables like this. His first two films were “Hard Times” and “The Driver,” and they were both at arm’s length from realism. Hill likes characters that take on a legendary, mythic stature, and then he likes to run them through situations that look like urban tableaux.
“Hard times,” a good and interesting film, starred Charles Bronson as a professional street fist-fighter who went up against opponents with all the dimension of a James Bond villain. “The Driver” didn’t even have names for its characters; they were described by their functions, and they behaved toward each other in strangely formal, rehearsed, unspontaneous ways.
“The Warriors” takes that style to such an extreme that almost all life and juice are drained from it; there’s great vitality and energy (and choreography and stunt coordination) in the many violent scenes of gang fights and run-ins with the cops. But when the characters talk, they seem to be inhabiting a tale rehearsed many times before.
One example: Three members of a street gang are lined up in a row. The camera regards the first one. He speaks. The camera pans to the second, and he speaks. The camera pans to the third. He speaks. Because the movement of the camera dictates the order and timing of the speeches, there can be no illusion that the characters are talking as their words occur to them.
This same kind of stiff stylization dominates the film. The street gangs take stances toward each other as if they were figures in a medieval print. The deployment of the police and gang forces is plainly impossible on any realistic level; people move into their symbolic places with such perfectly timed choreography that they must be telepathic. And the chase scenes are plainly impossible, as in one extended shot showing the Warriors outrunning a rival gang’s school bus.
All of this is no doubt Walter Hill’s intention. I suppose he has, an artistic vision he’s working toward in this film, and in his work. He chooses to meticulously ban human spontaneity from his films; he allows only a handful of shallow women characters into his stories; he reduces male conduct to ritualized violence. And in “The Warriors” he chooses, with a few exceptions, to cast against type: Only three or four of the movie’s characters look and sound like plausible street-gang members. The rest look and sound like male models for the currently fashionable advertising photography combining high fashion and rough trade.
All very well, I suppose, except that Paramount chooses to advertise the movie as a violent action picture — and action audiences, I suspect, will find it either incomprehensible or laughable. Walter Hill has a considerable visual skill, and he knows what he’s doing in “The Warriors” and does it well. But is this style suited to this material? And does Hill have other notes to play? All three of his films have shown a certain skittishness in the face of human juices and the unrehearsed flow of life. And so his street gangs, and his movies, walk lockstep through sterile streets.
Scorsese’s next project was his fifth collaboration with Robert De Niro, ‘The King of Comedy’ (1983). A satire on the world of media and celebrity, it was an obvious departure from the more emotionally committed films he had become associated with. Visually, it was far less kinetic than the style Scorsese had developed up until this point, often using a static camera and long takes.
The expressionism of his recent work here gave way to moments of almost total surrealism. It still bore many of Scorsese’s trademarks, however, such as its focus on a troubled loner who ironically becomes famous through a criminal act (murder and kidnapping, respectively). The King of Comedy failed at the box office, but has become increasingly well regarded by critics in the years since its release. Also, Scorsese apparently believes that this is the best performance De Niro ever gave for him.
In 1983 Scorsese began work on a long-cherished personal project, ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, based on the 1951 (English translation 1960) novel written by Nikos Kazantzakis. The project collapsed under pressure from outraged Christian groups.
After the difficulties he experienced with Last Temptation, Scorsese again saw his career at a critical point, as he described in the documentary Filming for Your Life: Making ‘After Hours’ (2004). He saw that in the increasingly commercial world of 1980s Hollywood, the highly stylized and personal 1970s films he and others had built their careers on would not continue to enjoy the same status.
With After Hours (1985) he made an aesthetic shift back to a pared-down, almost “underground” film-making style – his way of staying viable. Filmed on an extremely low budget, on location, and at night in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, the film is a black comedy about one increasingly misfortunate night for a mild New York word processor (Griffin Dunne) and featured cameos by Teri Garr and Cheech & Chong. A bit of a stylistic anomaly for Scorsese, After Hours fits in well with popular low-budget “cult” films of the 1980s, e.g. Jonathan Demme’s ‘Something Wild’ and Alex Cox’s ‘Repo Man’.
As well as the 1987 Michael Jackson music video “Bad”, in 1986 Scorsese made The Color of Money, a sequel to the much admired Robert Rossen film ‘The Hustler’ (1961) with Paul Newman reprising his role of Fast Eddie Felson and Tom Cruise. Although typically visually assured, The Color of Money was the director’s first foray into mainstream commercial film-making. It won actor Paul Newman a belated Oscar and gave Scorsese the clout to finally secure backing for a project that had been a long time goal for him: The Last Temptation of Christ.
Like the novel, the Paul Schrader scripted film depicts the life of Jesus Christ and his struggle with various forms of temptation including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance and lust. Even prior to its release the film caused a massive furore, worldwide protests against its perceived blasphemy effectively turning a low budget independent movie into a media sensation. The main source of the controversy centered on the final passages of the film which depicted Christ marrying and raising a family with Mary Magdalene in a Satan-induced hallucination while on the cross.
Looking past the controversy, The Last Temptation of Christ gained critical acclaim and remains an important work in Scorsese’s canon: an explicit attempt to wrestle with the spirituality which had under-pinned his filmsup until that point. Scorsese received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, and Hershey’s performance as Mary Magdalene earned her a Golden Globe nomination.
Along with directors Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola, in 1989 Scorsese provided one of three segments in the portmanteau film ‘New York Stories’, called “Life Lessons”. That was a stepping stone to one of his greatest achievements.
Gangster epic Goodfellas (1990) was a return to form for Scorsese and his most confident and fully realized film since Raging Bull. De Niro and Joe Pesci in Goodfellas offered a virtuoso display of the director’s bravura cinematic technique and re-established, enhanced, and consolidated his reputation. After the film was released, critic Roger Ebert, a friend and supporter of Scorsese, named Goodfellas “the best mob movie ever” and is ranked #1 on Roger’s movie list for 1990, the film is widely considered one of the director’s greatest achievements.
However, Goodfellas also signified an important shift in tone in the director’s work, inaugurating an era in his career which was technically accomplished but some have argued emotionally detached. Despite this, many view Goodfellas as a Scorsese archetype – the apogee of his cinematic technique. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, Scorsese earned his third nomination for Goodfellas but again lost to a first-time director, Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves). Joe Pesci earned the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Goodfellas. Scorsese and the film won over a numerous of different awards, including five BAFTA Awards, a Silver Lion from Venice.