South Side Story
After all the excesses of the festive period - no doubt an excessive number of excesses, for some of us - I thought it would be nice to look at an example of minimalism. This week's film has no big stars, no outstanding performances, no great innovations in style or content, a very modest budget, and - on the face of things at least - a very workmanlike script. And yet it manages to be a terrific little film. Brethren (and sistren), our text for the day is Walter Hill's The Warriors, based on a pulp novel by Sol Yurick and released in 1979.
Probably best known as one of the producers of the Alien franchise, Hill directed a number of stylised urban fantasies in the late 70s and early 80s and of these, The Warriors is undoubtedly the best. The Warriors of the title are a New York City street gang, based in the Coney Island amusement park. There's a big gang summit brewing up in the Bronx and a nine-man delegation heads north to attend, amongst its number dour prettyboy Swan (Michael Beck) and bellicose lecher Ajax (James Remar). The summit has been called by Cyrus, leader of the kungfu fightin' Riffs gang, but his reputation as the baddest man in town is somewhat undermined by the fact he turns up for the meeting in a maroon silk dressing-gown. Cyrus thinks the gangs of New York (say, now that'd be a good name for a movie!) can take over the city with ease if they co-operate, but before he can explain his masterplan he is rudely shot dead by Luther (David Patrick Kelly), leader of the leather-boy gang the Rogues. Inevitably the Warriors get blamed for the murder and they are forced to scarper back home with every other gang in the city on their tail, looking for blood.
It's a very simple story, recounting the misadventures of the various gang members as they struggle back to Coney, but the strength of the film is in the way it's told. Viewed objectively, this is clearly a love-letter to juvenile delinquency - virtually all the characters share the dubious leisure interests of vandalism, being chased by the police, and attacking their peers with baseball bats, knives, and petrol bombs - but the director clearly views them as doomed romantic heroes: there are distinct echoes of Homer's Odyssey to the journey, and according to the soundtrack they are 'the last of an ancient breed'.
Incredibly, though, the movie pulls this ludicrous piece of pretension off. This is due to a number of things: first of all, everyone involved clearly takes it very seriously indeed - there's virtually no humour, ironic or otherwise, and the performances (from an almost exclusively unknown cast) maintain a level of stoic conviction that the material doesn't always merit (although all the po-faced machismo can get wearing). It's a tight and subtle script, too: there are virtually no civilians in the movie, everyone is either a gang member or a cop (and so obviously deserve whatever they get). And in places it achieves a kind of weird urban poetry, the dialogue ringing like jive Shakespeare. There are many memorable moments: the wordless tubeway encounter between the Warriors and a group of affluent young Manhattanites, the gulf between poverty and wealth yawning chasm-like between them, Swan's appalled 'This is what we fought all night to get back to?' upon finally reaching a distinctly unpreposessing Coney Island in the sparse dawn light, and many more.
There are other strengths: a driving soft-rock soundtrack, cleverly worked into the script through the device of a gang-run radio station whose DJ comments on the events of the film as they happen. NYC is effectively presented as a bleak, dark, and unwelcoming concrete jungle, while each of the various gangs is carefully presented, having its own distinctive 'look'. The whole film is stylised in this manner, one step away from reality - yet close enough not to be a total fantasy. Even the set-piece fights are choreographed like ballet rather than brawling.
It's not perfect, of course: the climax is a total damp squib, the villain doesn't actually have a motivation (he even mentions this himself), and - this being a late 70s movie - Cyrus' dressing gown is only the most obvious of many unfortunate costuming decisions (to the modern eye, anyway). And it's a guy movie, too: there's only one major female character and even she's a prostitute-turned-love-interest. All the others are either girlfriends, or lesbian girl-gang members, or police officers (die-hard Frasier fans may be interested in Mercedes Ruehl's cameo). But for me, at least, it's a little gem of a film. Who'd've thought gang-related violence could be so much fun?
Speaking of Christmas treats (which we were, honest) one of the few things we sat down to watch as a family this year was the BBC adaptation of The Lost World. We all tended to agree that this was an enjoyable enough ripping yarn, though there weren't enough dinosaur fights. But I was a little perturbed by the degree of adaptation actually involved: new characters popping out of thin air (Columbo and his niece), a new ending, and a subtext about evolution and the conservation of the environment wholly lacking from Conan Doyle's original novel.
Well, you say, they did all those things just to make it work better for the screen. Oh yes? Let's see them carry out that kind of major surgery on the next Austen or Trollope adaptation. Somehow I don't think they'd dare. But The Lost World is only a piece of early pulp SF, you rejoin. Well, fair comment, I reply - amongst other things, it has some of the silliest chapter titles this side of Nietzsche, my favourites being 'It was Dreadful in the Forest' and 'A Sight which I shall Never Forget'. But it says a lot about attitudes in this country that a book is considered fair game for this sort of wanton interference simply because it contains fantasy elements. A double standard the BBC should be ashamed of.