Defying all belief and probability, "The Warriors," now at area theaters, turns out to be a more abstract chase thriller than "The Driver," Walter Hill's recent exercise in stylish direction for its own sake.
Come to think of it, "The Warriors" transcends "West Side Story" at the specialized art of treating the subject to teen-age gang warfare in New York abstractly. Where "West Side Story" recalled "Romeo and Juliet," "The Warriors" presumes to recall "The Odyssey," Western epics, samurai epics, maybe even "Watership Down."
Perhaps Walter Hill should do a musical. Indeed, "The Warriors" seems to have more affinities with dance than either drama or the reality of the streets. Hill uses gangs as the pretext for a feature-length movie ballet.
Although "The Warriors" looks brilliantly alive from the opening night vista of the Wonder Wheel, a Coney Island Ferris wheel, winking its neon lights, the movie is unlikely to encounter a tolerant public. Paramount seems to have rushed it into release, but the company may be motivated by bafflement rather than the urge to beat the year's other gang stories to the screen. Taken objectively, the scenario is simply too weird and ludicrous to inspire anything but hoots of largely justified derision.
The weirdness begins on a kind of "Wild in the Streets" note as representatives of hundreds of New York gangs converge on Pelham Park to listen to a political address by Cyrus, a charismatic gang leader who urges a confederation designed to deliver control of the city into their hands. During an ovation Cyrus is assassinated, quite obviously it would appear, by the hilariously degenerate leader of a gang called the Rogues. For the sake of dramatic convenience, he is allowed to pin the blame for the shooting on the Warriors, an integrated Coney Island gang. The rest of the movie depicts the beleaguered Warriors' attempt to reach home turf while being set upon by rival gangs avid to avenge the murder of Cyrus.
This potentially workable premise has not been worked out realistically, to put it mildly. For example, it's a waste of time wondering why the boys insist on risking rumbles at every subway stop instead of getting home by maybe stealing a car or two. Subway trains and stations are integral to Hill's decor and choregraphy.
The rumbles themselves are staged in the spirit of sensational production numbers or kung-fu routine. There's a lot of running, jumping, thumping and slashing, but the combatants are so preposterous that you never think of them as getting hurt. They're like cartoon figures, who may return to normal after scenes in which they've been flattened, severed or shot full of holes.
None of Hill's dynamism will save "The Warriors" from impressing most neutral observers as a ghastly folly. It seems a little demented to choose gang warfare as a pretext for showing off virtuoso technique.