"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, March 29, 2010

Straight to Hell

In the 1980s, British filmmaker Alex Cox had a terrific run of idiosyncratic films that included the science fiction satire, Repo Man (1984), the skid row romance Sid and Nancy (1986), and the unconventional historical biopic Walker (1987). Often forgotten during this decade is the Gonzo spaghetti western, Straight to Hell (1987), a film that simultaneously pays homage to and parodies the genre. No one was ready for this kind of film during the ultra-conservative Reagan era and Cox’s film was a resounding commercial and critical failure.

If there was ever a film that deserved a cult following it was Straight to Hell, which has to have one of the most eclectic casts ever assembled – a motley crew of musicians (Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello), veteran actors (Dennis Hopper) and Cox regulars (Sy Richardson, Dick Rude). For good measure, Cox added an untrained actress (Courtney Love), a wildly eccentric one (Grace Jones) and a fellow filmmaker (Jim Jarmusch) into the mix, bouncing all of these people off one another and filming the results which were pretty interesting to say the least.

Sims (Joe Strummer), Willie (Dick Rude) and Norwood (Sy Richardson) rob a bank in Almeria, Spain and go on the lam with Norwood’s pregnant girlfriend Thelma (Courtney Love). They take refuge in a small, run-down village right out of one of Sergio Leone’s westerns. They cross paths with a rowdy gang of outlaws known as The McMahons (played mostly by Shane MacGowan and The Pogues ) and you just know that at some point a conflict will arise and it will all end in violence.

Some of the highlights of this very eclectic cast include Dick Rude playing a criminal variation of the dumbbell punk he played in Repo Man. Joe Strummer is the crook so cool that he combs his hair with a switchblade. Sy Richardson is the calm and collected leader. Courtney Love, before anyone knew who she was, seems to be channeling Nancy Spungen which makes sense considering she tried out for the role in Cox’s Sid and Nancy biopic. Then, there are the non-sequiteur cameos by the likes of Dennis Hopper and Grace Jones who show up more than halfway through to give our heroes a machine gun only to disappear like ghosts. What keeps things interesting is watching all of these musicians collide with actors in one odd scene after another.

While editing Sid and Nancy, Cox got involved in a concert in Brixton, England in support of the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua. The likes of Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer and The Pogues played at the sold out benefit. Sid and Nancy producer Eric Fellner came up with the idea of getting the musicians that played at the concert to go on tour in Nicaragua. Fellner assumed that a video deal would pay for it and persuaded the musicians in question to sign-up for a month-long acoustic Nicaragua Solidarity Tour in August 1986. However, Cox and Fellner couldn’t find a video company to fund the tour because of the conservative climate in England with then prime minister Margaret Thatcher trying to criminalize the word, “Sandinista.”

With the tour a no-go and faced with the prospect of having all these musicians not recording or on tour, Fellner came up with the idea of making a film instead. Cox found that it was easier to raise a million dollars for a low-budget film than it was to get $75,000 to film musicians “playing a revolutionary nation in the middle of a war.” He also turned down the opportunity to direct Three Amigos (1986) to make Straight to Hell instead which just goes to show that he went with his gut instincts as opposed to his commercial sensibilities. Cox and Dick Rude wrote the roles for the actors and the director decided to shoot Straight to Hell in Spain where Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) had been made.

Straight to Hell’s premiere was as unconventional as the film itself, held at the Pickwick Drive-In in Burbank, California. Invitees were asked to come dressed in “post-apocalyptic fiesta garb,” and everyone who showed up was handed a water pistol. Not surprisingly, such an oddball film was not given a wide distribution and what critics saw it were not keen on it. Roger Ebert led the charge and wrote, “Watching the movie in a dreary reverie, while nameless characters shot at each other for no discernible reason, I asked myself what it was lacking. And the answer, I guess, is sort of old-fashioned: It needed some kind of coherent narrative.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “the result is a mildly engrossing, instantly forgettable midnight movie.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson was a little more unforgiving in his review where he wrote, “the action is so gratuitous, and so indifferently presented, that it’s impossible to think that Cox ever truly intended it to be seen by anyone outside of the cast and crew and their immediate families.” In his review for the Boston Globe, Jay Carr wrote, “Try as he will, Cox just can't revive punk's defiant whoop here. One wonders if it would have been possible even if Straight to Hell had a script, which it doesn't. Mostly, it's Cox's friends hanging out, looking forlorn, as if they wished someone would tell them what to do.”

Watching Straight to Hell, it quickly becomes obvious that Quentin Tarantino must be a fan and was influenced by it. Both Norwood and Sims are gun-toting criminals dressed like the crooks in both Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) but with the outlaw pedigree of the Gecko brothers in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). Not to mention Sy Richardson’s no-nonsense criminal carries himself a helluva lot like Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp. Straight to Hell’s humor is very broad and often surreal while the characters are intentionally cartoonish in nature with the actors often playing their roles wildly over-the-top. It’s all done in a playful way that is not meant to be taken seriously at all. Although, at times, it feels like the cast were probably having more fun making the film than it is to watch it with all kinds of in-jokes being exchanged and this only adds to the surreal tone.

In retrospect, Straight to Hell marked Cox’s break from conventional cinema in favor of a looser, more freewheeling approach. The film ambles along without any real purpose, much like its protagonists. There is no consistent tone or rhythm which could be interpreted as sloppy filmmaking but I think Cox knows exactly what he’s doing here. It seems like he was trying to make a cult film on purpose. In some respects, Straight to Hell feels like a warm-up for Cox’s next film, Walker, which would be an even more radical break from genre convention, only this time turning the biopic on its head.

Friday, March 26, 2010

DVD of the Week: The Men Who Stare at Goats

George Clooney is one of those versatile actors that can easily go back and forth between big budget studio films like Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and smaller, more personal independent films like Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). One gets the feeling that given his preference, he’d much rather make the latter than the former but he’s smart enough to know that doing the occasional studio film gives him the opportunity to make smaller films. One glance at the cast list for The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) and you would assume that it was a studio film with the likes of Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, and Kevin Spacey involved. It’s the offbeat premise, however, that could only come from an indie film.

Inspired by Jon Ronson’s non-fiction bestseller of the same name, The Men Who Stare at Goats follows the misadventures of Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), an investigative journalist in search of a major story to cover. He stumbles across a secretive wing of the United States military called The New Earth Army, created to develop psychic powers in soldiers. These include reading the enemy’s thoughts, passing through walls, and yes, killing a goat by staring at it. While doing a story about a man (Stephen Root) who stopped the heart of his pet hamster with his mind for a local newspaper in Ann Arbor, Wilton finds out that this man used to be part of a top secret military unit of psychic spies in the 1980s. At least, that’s what he claims.

Understandably skeptic about the man’s abilities, Wilton learns about the former leader of the unit, Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), “the most gifted psi-guy” who now runs a dance studio. After a co-worker dies suddenly and his wife leaves him for his editor, Wilton interprets these incidents to be a wake-up call and travels to the Middle East to cover the war. By chance (or is it?), while staying at a hotel in Kuwait, he runs into Cassady. This self-proclaimed Jedi Warrior (?!) tells Wilton about Project Jedi, a hush-hush assignment that cultivated Super Soldiers with super powers. Cassady’s technique for tapping into these powers involves drinking alcohol and listening to the music of classic rock band Boston.

Wilton learns all about this elite unit that combines “the courage and nobility of the Warrior” with “the spirituality of the Monk,” and follows in the footsteps of “the great Imagineers of the past”: Jesus Christ, Lao Tse Tung and Walt Disney. Wilton convinces Cassady to allow him to tag along during his mission in Iraq and the rest of the film plays out as a quirky road movie cum satire of war films.

George Clooney is quite good as the clearly bat-shit crazy Cassady. The actor plays the role seriously but you can see that insane glint in his eyes. It’s impressive how he is able to say some of his character’s ridiculous dialogue with a straight face. Clooney gets maximum laughs by playing it straight and is also not afraid to act silly when the situation calls for it. And it does in one of the film’s funniest set pieces during a flashback where Cassady’s New Age commanding officer (Jeff Bridges) loosens up the unit by having them spontaneously dance to “Dancing with Myself” by Billy Idol. It’s pretty funny seeing a bunch of uniformed soldiers, Clooney included, dancing their asses off.

Clooney is surrounded by a very impressive supporting cast. Jeff Bridges plays a peace-loving high ranking soldier, sort of the Dude if he had been drafted instead of dropping out of society. Kevin Spacey is the black sheep of the unit and jealous of Clooney’s powers. Meanwhile, Ewan McGregor is the naive reporter and audience surrogate. They all get their moments to show their stuff but the film really belongs to Clooney and his seriously wacky character.

After making serious political films like Syriana (2005) and Good Night, and Good Luck, it’s nice to see Clooney starring in a political satire that is funny but still has something to say as it shows the absurdity of the war in Iraq. This is evident in a scene where Cassady and Wilton narrowly escape a firefight between two competing security firms. The Men Who Stare at Goats falls under the truth is stranger than fiction category as it presents a story populated by eccentric characters and tall tales, some of which might be true. Regardless, it is an entertaining film with a wonderfully oddball sense of humour in the same vein as other memorable war satires like M*A*S*H (1970), Catch 22 (1970) and Three Kings (1999). Don’t be put off by the setting. Although it takes place in Iraq, The Men Who Stare at Goats is not weighed down by the baggage of this war.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by the film’s director Grant Heslov. He points out certain characters that are composites but is quick to explain that what they say comes from Jon Ronson’s book. He sometimes spends too much time telling us where certain scenes were shot which gets tiresome pretty fast. Heslov’s focus is mostly on the nuts and bolts of filmmaking but done in a fairly dry and uninteresting way.

Also included is a commentary by the book’s author Jon Ronson. He points out the scenes that are based on real incidents and talks about meeting the actual people that the characters are based on. He also explains who the composite characters are and tells all sorts of fascinating anecdotes. If you want to learn more the people and events behind the ones depicted in the film, this is worth a listen if only to find out how much is taken from his book and experiences.

“Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion” features some of the actual military personnel depicted The Men Who Stare at Goats. They talk about some of their intentions. We also learn about how this top secret unit’s techniques were brought to light. It’s great to hear from the actual people as they tell their fascinating stories.

“Project ‘Hollywood’: A Classified Report from the Set” takes a brief look at the origins of the film and how it got made. Several of the lead actors talk about their characters and there’s footage of them having fun on location.

“Character Bios” is a collection of trailer for the film emphasizing several key characters.

Also included is four minutes of deleted scenes. There is more flashback footage some of which should’ve stayed in as it’s quite funny.

Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Steve McQueen Blog-a-thon: The Getaway

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the Steve McQueen Blog-a-thon being coordinated by Jason Bellamy over at The Cooler.
By the time he made The Getaway (1972), Steven McQueen was in desperate need of a commercially successful film. His last three were box office flops, especially his last one, Junior Bonner (1972). Incidentally, Sam Peckinpah, who directed both films, was also in a need of a hit and saw this project as a way to show Hollywood that he could make a box-office hit. In doing so, the director once again was forced to compromise his vision for someone else’s – in this case, McQueen who did everything in his power to make The Getaway his ticket back into the elite, A-list club of major Hollywood players.

Carter “Doc” McCoy (Steve McQueen) is a career criminal just released from prison after serving time for armed robbery. The opening credits play over a montage of the repetitive grind of life in prison for Doc as symbolized by the monotonous clacking of the machinery he works with during his time spent there. We get glimpses of his daily routine and the things he does to try and pass the time but they do little to ease his frustrations. With the help of his beautiful wife Carol (Ali MacGraw), who has sex with local corrupt politician Benyon (Ben Johnson), Doc is released early for “good behavior.”

Carol and Doc are reunited and they celebrate by going to a park, an idyllic setting where they spontaneously decide to go for a swim. Doc revels in his freedom. He and Carol seem happy. They share a rare, tender moment together at home when she comforts him and he confesses to her how prison has changed him. He’s even apprehensive about making love with her because so much time has passed but she is loving and patient with him. The next morning we see them briefly experiencing domestic bliss as Doc makes breakfast for Carol. There’s an incredible intimacy displayed during these scenes and McQueen conveys an astonishing amount of vulnerability. This is the first and only time we’ll see them this carefree. It’s fleeting as the rest of the film will see Doc in professional criminal mode.

Indebted to Benyon, Doc meets with him about a potential job. Ben Johnson plays his character with the smug confidence of a man who knows that he has power over others. As Benyon tells Doc at one point during their meeting, “You run the job, but I run the show.” Benyon orders Doc to rob a bank that has over $500,000. He assigns him two accomplices, Rudy Butler (Al Lettieri) and Frank Johnson (Bo Hopkins). One look at these two hired goons and you know that they can’t be trusted. Doc is a smart guy and realizes this as well but what choice does he have?
In a nice attention to detail, we see Doc and his crew thoroughly plan and prepare for the job. Both he and Carol check out the bank in order to see how many employees it has, what kind of security they have, the local police presence, and so on. It becomes readily apparent that Doc leaves nothing to chance. He’s efficient and well-prepared. However, despite all of his meticulous planning, the heist does not go smoothly and a bank guard and Jackson are killed. Not surprisingly, this sequence allows Peckinpah to cut loose with some of his trademark slow motion mayhem, including a fantastic bit where Doc plows through the front porch of a house with his getaway car. Peckinpah’s films are always a marvel of editing and this one is no different. During the bank heist, he uses editing to ratchet up the tension. Because of the rhythm of the editing he employs in this sequence, you intuitively anticipate that something bad will happen at any given moment and when it does, it almost comes as a relief akin to a release valve.

Doc and Carol rendezvous with Butler and the latter foolishly tries to double-cross the former. Doc shoots Butler and leaves him for dead. The rest of the film plays out their attempts to escape for the border and safe haven in El Rey, Mexico, and also Butler’s pursuit for revenge.

Steven McQueen brings his trademark cool and intensity to the role of Doc and is not afraid to play a relatively unlikable character. We don’t know what Doc was like before his prison stretch, only how he behaves once he gets out. McQueen plays him as someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I find it interesting that two of his strongest performances came from back-to-back Peckinpah films: Junior Bonner and The Getaway. The former featured a very nuanced, introspective performance from McQueen, while this one is all on the surface as he plays an irredeemable criminal.

Ali MacGraw faced a lot of criticism back in the day for being a lightweight actress out of her depth in this film but she does a good job, especially in the scene where Carol exacts retribution on Benyon and then in the follow-up scene where she tearfully confronts Doc about what she had to do in order to get him out of prison. He lashes out at her, repeatedly slapping Carol, reducing her to tears in a truly uncomfortable moment. Peckinpah is never afraid to expose raw emotions. Doc knows how to switch his emotions on and off at will but Carol doesn’t work that way. MacGraw does a nice job of portraying a woman that feels out of her depth in a world filled with hardened criminals and this mirrored the actress’ own experience making a film she clearly was not comfortable doing in the company of people that intimidated her.

When you have someone iconic like Steve McQueen as your protagonist, you better have someone who can match him as the antagonist. Peckinpah found that in Al Lettieri who plays the ruthless Rudy Butler. The actor brings an uneasy intensity to his sociopathic character. Butler only cares about the money and getting revenge while also delighting in tormenting a couple he takes hostage along the way. There’s a seedy ugliness to the scenes where takes advantage of a veterinarian (Jack Dodson) and his wife (Sally Struthers) that would be taken up another notch in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).
For some time prior to The Getaway, McQueen had been encouraging his publicist David Foster to become a film producer. Foster’s first attempt was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) with McQueen starring alongside Paul Newman but 20th Century Fox did not want Foster as part of the deal. The project fell apart and while McQueen was making Le Mans (1971), Foster acquired the rights to Jim Thompson’s crime novel The Getaway. Foster sent McQueen a copy of the book and urged him to do it. The actor was looking for a good/bad guy role and saw these qualities in Doc. McQueen admired Humphrey Bogart since he was a child and patterned his performance from Bogart in High Sierra (1941).

Foster began to look for a director and Peter Bogdanovich was brought to his attention. He and McQueen screened Bogdanovich’s soon-to-be-released The Last Picture Show (1971) and loved it. They met with the director and a deal was made. However, Warner Brothers approached Bogdanovich with an offer to direct What’s Up Doc? (1972) with Barbra Streisand but with the stipulation that he would have to start right away. The director wanted to do both films but the studio refused. When McQueen found out, he was very upset and told Bogdanovich that he was going to get someone else to direct The Getaway. Foster and McQueen hired Jim Thompson to adapt his own book into a screenplay which he spent four months writing. However, they did not like the ending where Carol and Doc “descend into a nightmarish physical and spiritual hell” in Mexico and fired him from the project.

McQueen had just worked with Peckinpah on Junior Bonner and enjoyed the experience. He recommended the director to Foster who then approached Peckinpah. He agreed to do it. The filmmaker had read the novel when it was originally published and had even talked to Thompson about making it into a film when he was starting out as a director. Foster and McQueen then met with screenwriter Walter Hill and hired him to adapt Thompson’s novel. Peckinpah read the screenplay and Hill remembers that he didn’t change much: “We made it nonperiod and we added a little more action.” After Junior Bonner, Peckinpah wanted to make Emperor of the North Pole (1973), a story set during the Depression about a railroad conductor obsessed with keeping hobos off his train. Foster made a deal with Paramount Pictures’ production chief Robert Evans who would allow Peckinpah to do his personal project if he would helm The Getaway.
For the role of Carol, Peckinpah wanted to cast Stella Stevens whom he worked with on The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) with Angie Dickinson or Dyan Cannon as possible alternatives. Foster suggested Ali MacGraw, a much in-demand actress after the smash-hit Love Story (1970). At the time, she was married to Evans who wanted her to get away from being typecast in preppy roles and set up a meeting with Foster, McQueen and Peckinpah to talk about the film. According to Foster, she was scared of McQueen and Peckinpah because they had a reputation for being “wild, two-fisted beer-guzzlers.” When McQueen met MacGraw there was a very strong, instant attraction between the two. She was unsure about the project because of her attraction to him. She said, “He was recently separated, and free, and I was scared of my overwhelming attraction to him.”

For the role of Rudy Butler, Peckinpah wanted Jack Palance but could not afford his salary. Impressed by his performance in Panic in Needle Park (1971), Walter Hill recommended Richard Bright. He had worked with McQueen 14 years ago but did not have the physique that McQueen pictured for Butler. Peckinpah got along famously with Bright and ended up casting him in a smaller role of a small-time grifter that tries to steal the bank heist loot. Al Lettieri was brought to Peckinpah’s attention by producer Al Ruddy who was working with the actor on The Godfather (1972). Ruddy showed the director footage of Lettieri and Peckinpah knew that he wanted him to play Butler. Like Peckinpah, Lettieri was a heavy drinker and this caused problems during filming due to his unpredictable behavior. The director, on the other hand, drank all day but did not appear drunk.

A potential roadblock arose in the form of a conflict between Paramount and the film’s budget. Peckinpah was dismissed from Emperor and was told that Paramount was not making The Getaway either. McQueen’s agent had 30 days to set up a deal with another studio or Paramount would own the rights. Fortunately, his agent was inundated with offers and went with the First Artists group because McQueen would receive no upfront salary, just 10% of the gross for the first dollar taken in on the film – very profitable if it was a box-office hit.

Principal photography began on February 7, 1972 in Huntsville, Texas. Peckinpah shot the opening prison scenes at the local penitentiary with McQueen surrounded by actual convicts. During the course of filming, McQueen and MacGraw fell in love. Naturally, Foster was worried that their relationship was going to have a negative impact on the production by causing a potential scandal with the media ruining the reputation of the film.

McQueen and Peckinpah got into occasional heated arguments during filming. The director recalled one such incident: “Steve and I had been discussing some point on which we disagreed, so he picked up this bottle of champagne and threw it at me. I saw it coming and ducked and Steve just laughed.” Despite these disagreements, McQueen had his moments of brilliance. He had a natural aptitude with props, especially the guns he used in the film. Hill remembered, “you can see Steve’s military training in his films. He was so brisk and confident in the way he handled the guns.” It was McQueen’s idea to have Doc shoot up two squad cars in the scene where his character holds two police officers at gunpoint.

MacGraw got her start as a model and her inexperience as an actress manifested itself on the set where she struggled with the role. According to Foster, Peckinpah and MacGraw got along quite well but she was not happy with her own performance. She said, “I looked at what I had done in it, I hated my own performance. I liked the picture, but I despised my own work.”

Under his contract with First Artists, McQueen had final cut on The Getaway and when Peckinpah found out he was very upset. Richard Bright said that McQueen chose takes that “made him look good” and Peckinpah felt that he played it safe: “He chose all these Playboy shots of himself. He’s playing it safe with these pretty-boy shots.” McQueen also used his clout to replace Jerry Fielding’s completed score with one by Quincy Jones.

There were two preview screenings, a lackluster one in San Francisco, and a more enthusiastic one held in San Jose. However, critics were less than jazzed with The Getaway. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and called it, “a big, glossy, impersonal mechanical toy.” Time magazine described McQueen as having “primarily a deep-frozen presence,” and called MacGraw’s screen presence “abrasive. As a talent, she is embarrassing.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “The action and the violence of The Getaway are supported by no particular themes whatsoever. The movie just unravels.” After everything was said and done, The Getaway was the second highest grossing film of the year, making $18 million domestically and $35 million worldwide. McQueen was back on top and a major Hollywood player once again.

Peckinpah never forgets what kind of film The Getaway is – a crime thriller – but still manages to inject his trademark stylistic flourishes and thematic preoccupations while still fulfilling all the necessary conventions of the genre, especially in the exciting, bullet-ridden climax. The Getaway may have been a paycheck film for Peckinpah but he still found ways to make it his own despite McQueen’s tinkering.


Simmons, Garner. Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage. Limelight Editions. 1998.

Terrill, Marshall. Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel. Plexus: London. 1993.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

DVD of the Week: Up in the Air

With the phenomenonal success of Juno (2007), director Jason Reitman could have easily faded into obscurity and been labeled a one-hit wonder. Undaunted, he followed up that film with the equally successful Up in the Air (2009), which, like his previous effort, was a critical darling due in some part to its timely subject matter. It was quickly pegged as an early Academy Award contender and sure enough garnered six nominations. However, it was shut out completely thanks in large part to Precious (2009) and The Hurt Locker (2008). Regardless, Up in the Air struck a chord with audiences and gave George Clooney another choice role to add to his already impressive career.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a professional hatchet man. Companies too squeamish to do it themselves hire him to come in and fire an employee. He has the slick charm to cushion the blow but it means nothing to him because it’s just a job – no more, no less. Because of the nature of his work, Ryan leads a nomadic existence, essentially living out of a suitcase as he crisscrosses the country racking up the frequent flyer points and seeing more of the insides of airports and hotel rooms than wherever he calls home. Ryan’s philosophy of life basically boils down to a question he asks at the seminars he gives: “How much does your life weigh?”

Ryan keeps his life simple – he has no attachments. All he has is his work and that suits him just fine. During his travels he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), a beautiful woman and fellow veteran business traveler. They have a fling and schedule another rendezvous as if they were penciling in an upcoming meeting. Ryan’s boss (Jason Bateman) assigns him a partner, a young woman by the name of Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) who has found a way to do his job cheaper and more efficiently. This is achieved by firing people remotely via video conferencing on a computer. This approach threatens Ryan’s entire way of life. While Natalie may have confidence and smarts, she lacks experience and so he is instructed to take her on the road and show her the ropes.

With his seemingly limitless reservoir of charisma, George Clooney is well cast as a smooth talking businessman. There is a scene where Ryan and Natalie tell a man (J.K. Simmons) that he’s fired and she says the wrong thing. The already upset employee vents his frustration and this upsets her confidence. With his years of experience, Ryan turns things around and actually convinces the guy that he being fired will now allow him to follow his dreams. The way Clooney masterfully does this is fascinating to watch. After all, if you had to be fired wouldn’t you want him to do it?

Supporting Clooney is Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga as the two women that unexpectedly enter Ryan’s life and show him that there is more to life than traveling business class and living out of a suitcase. Kendrick, fresh from her small role in the Twilight films and capitalizing on the promise she showed in Rocket Science (2007), she gets some decent screen time to demonstrate her acting chops. On the surface, Natalie is confident and ambitious but when Ryan takes her on the road, she realizes that it’s not so easy firing someone to their face. Kendrick conveys this realization really well.
Ever since making a notable impression in the male-dominated Martin Scorsese crime film The Departed (2006), Farmiga has done all kinds of roles and brought an intensity that is always interesting to watch. She’s at her most engaging here as Clooney’s love interest. She brings a warmth and humanity to Alex that makes it easy to see why Ryan is attracted to her. Alex is smart and sexy as well as confident in her own skin. She knows what she wants and this also draws him to her.

In some respects, Up in the Air mixes elements of The Accidental Tourist (1988) and Lost in Translation (2003). Like the former, Ryan has his own philosophy of travel, complete with rituals and tricks of the trade that make it more efficient. Like the latter film, Ryan is something of a lonely soul who makes a connection when he least expects it. Most significantly, Up in the Air is a reflection of the times we live in. It reflects the terrible shape our economy is in with massive layoffs happening in every sector. Reitman’s film shows the damage that has been done and continues to be inflicted on everyday people. And yet the film offers some glimmer of hope by hinting at Ryan’s possible redemption. Up in the Air suggests that what gets us through the tough times is the support and love of others, be they siblings, friends or significant others. We all need that human connection. Reitman’s film doesn’t give us any easy answers and is not exactly the feel-good film of the year, but you do feel that Ryan has changed. Whether it’s for the better or for the worse remains to be seen but at least he has experienced an alternative to his routine existence.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by writer/director Jason Reitman, director of photography Eric Steelberg and first assistant director Jason Blumenfeld. Reitman talks about how the economic recession affected the tone of the film. Originally, the montages of people being fired were to be satirical but he realized that this was no longer funny anymore. The three men tend to put an emphasis on the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, like the challenge of shooting in airports including the lengthy process of getting permission to shoot in them. Reitman is quite energetic and, not surprisingly, guides this track, prompting the other two participants with questions.
“Shadowplay: Before the Story” is a brief featurette on the company that created the opening credits sequence. In fact, they have worked on all of his films. They talk about the desired effect that they wanted to achieve.
Also included are five deleted scenes with optional commentary by Reitman. There is more footage of people being fired. We also see more of Ryan and Alex connecting at a party which is nice to see. There is more of Ryan finally making a home base for himself. There is a dream sequence that seems out of place and was rightly cut. Reitman puts this footage in context and briefly explains why he ultimately removed it from the picture.

Finally, there are teaser and theatrical trailers.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Q & A

Among the many genres prolific filmmaker Sidney Lumet has dabbled in, the one in which he excels and demonstrates the most affinity for is the crime thriller. In particular, he is fascinated with police corruption and how the law and order system works (or, in some cases, doesn’t work) in New York City. In the 1970s, he told the story of an undercover cop who deals with corruption among his fellow officers with Serpico (1973). In the 1980s, he depicted the plight of a police detective that informs on his cohorts after being busted himself in the magnum opus Prince of the City (1981). In the 1990s, Lumet tackled police corruption yet again but this time via the angle of racism with Q & A (1990). Based on the novel of the same name by New York judge Edwin Torres, Lumet’s adaptation received mixed reviews from critics and was largely ignored by audiences of the day. It has become something of a forgotten, underappreciated film in Lumet’s filmography and one that deserves to be rediscovered.

During the opening credits we see the rain-slicked streets of New York City through the back seat of a cop car. This sequence sets a nice, gritty tone and takes us on a mini-tour of the city where most of the film’s action takes place. However, Ruben Blades’ jarring song that plays on the soundtrack almost ruins it. I’m not quite sure what Lumet was thinking but it simply does not work here.

Lieutenant Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte) is a dirty cop as evident from his introduction where he ambushes an unarmed Latino drug dealer, blows the guy’s brains out and then bullies two nearby witnesses into saying that the man had a gun in his hand. Assistant District Attorney Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) is assigned to the case. His boss tells him that the incident is a cut and dry one. He is told that Brennan is a good cop – a little rough in his methods but all of his cases have been tried successfully with no appeals. Reilly is instructed to collect the facts with the help of a stenographer and present them to a grand jury. His boss instructs him that “the Q & A defines what really happened. If it’s not the Q & A, it didn’t happen.”

Reilly is eager to please and is impressed with Brennan’s imposing presence and reputation. The young A.D.A. questions Roberto “Bobby Tex” Texador (Armand Assante), a drug dealer and racketeer, who, along with his wife Nancy (Jenny Lumet), witnessed the aftermath of the murder. He refutes the theory that the gun was found on the murder victim. Reilly begins to suspect that something might not be right with the case. He is also faced with a personal conflict as he used to be involved with Nancy and still has feelings for her. Reilly soon realizes that’s he’s taken on more than he can possibly handle. Sidney Lumet pits Brennan, Bobby Tex and Reilly against one another, each with their own agenda and the film gradually heads towards an inevitable confrontation between the three men.

Nick Nolte is a lot of fun to watch as a larger than life cop. He sports slicked back hair and a thick mustache that threatens to overtake his mouth. There’s a memorable scene early on where his character recounts a story to some other cops about how a mobster gave him a hard time when he tried to fingerprint him that is hilarious and disgusting. The scene has an authenticity of a veteran that delights in telling old war stories to inflate his own ego. Nolte’s Brennan is a chatty guy that loves to tell stories of past glories as he tries to buddy-up with Reilly until the A.D.A. lets him know that he’ll go after the veteran cop if he finds out he’s dirty. Nolte’s whole demeanor changes in a heartbeat and it is quite exciting to see him go from jovial to threatening in the span of a few seconds. Brennan is as corrupt as they get and enjoys the influence he exerts and the power he wields. He uses fear and intimidation to get what he wants. Nolte put on 40 pounds for the role because he felt that the character required it: “just the sheer mass of brutality. I felt that would be the right kind of thing. He had to be on the edge of his own dissipation.”

Armand Assante is a force of nature as Bobby Tex, portraying the crook with an aggressive swagger and an intensity that is impressively conveyed in his eyes. During Reilly’s initial questioning, Bobby oozes casual confidence and Assante does a great job of conveying it. He also imparts a keen intelligence. Bobby isn’t just some two-bit street punk. He doesn’t even blow his cool when Luis Guzman’s cop gets all in his face. Bobby matches his intensity and it is great to see two skilled character actors go at it. Assante ups his intensity when he warns Reilly to stay away from his wife. He gives the A.D.A. a seriously threatening look that would have most people shaking in their shoes. It’s Bobby’s first appearance in the film and Assante makes quite an impression.

Up against two lead actors playing colorful characters, Timothy Hutton wisely underplays Al Reilly. His character may be young and new to the job but he knows the law as demonstrated when questioning a mobster by the name of Pesch (Dominic Chianese) and his lawyer (Fyvush Finkel) in rather confident fashion. At first, it appears that the slick mob lawyer is going intimidate Reilly but the young man expertly turns the tables with his intelligence. Hutton is good as the straight arrow A.D.A. that decides to take on a highly respected cop and in the process uncovers an intricate web of corruption. The actor avoids stereotyping by showing layers to his character through the revelation of his feelings for Nancy which affects his approach to the case. Reilly starts off as an idealistic person but over the course of the film, as he’s exposed to corruption, he gains experience and becomes savvier when it comes to how things work. Early on in Q & A, there is a revealing conversation he has with Leo Bloomenfeld (Lee Richardson), a veteran attorney that has clearly been working in the system for far too many years. He’s jaded and tells the eager Reilly how things really are, giving him a taste of the corruption he will witness first hand later on. To prepare for the role, Hutton went on squad-car runs with police officers in Manhattan in order to get an idea of the challenges they face on the streets. He said of the experience, “in many cases the hands of the officer on the street are tied.”

Lumet shows how close these cops are by the short-hand between them and the familiarity they have with each other. In the scene where Reilly questions Brennan about the homicide in a room full of cops, the director really captures the camaraderie among these men. The dialogue sounds authentic and is delivered by the actors in a way that is so natural you believe that they are these characters. Consummate character actor Luis Guzman has a memorable role as a homicide detective that first suspects the Brennan case is rotten. He has a memorable moment where he jokingly defends Brennan’s casual racism: “He ain’t no racist. He hates everybody. He’s an equal opportunity hater.” Even though this is said in jest, in actuality it’s not far off the mark.

Q & A received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "It is fascinating the way this movie works so well as a police thriller on one level, while on other levels it probes feelings we may keep secret even from ourselves." Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers wrote, "Lumet tries to cram too much in ... But he's onto something, and you can sense his excitement. This is Lumet's boldest film in years – a combustible drama with a vivid, shocking immediacy. The director is back at the top of his game.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson praised Nick Nolte's performance: "This actor doesn't flinch in the least from his character's unsavoriness; instead he seems to glory in his crumpled suits and unwashed hair, as if they were a kind of spiritual corollary. Nolte gives Brennan a kind of monumental brutishness – he makes him seem utterly indomitable.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Rick Groen praised Armand Assante's performance: "in a role that could easily descend into cliche – the crook with a moral code – Assante does his best work to date, always keeping on the safe side of the stereotype.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, "Nolte, with a big paunch and a walrus mustache, is a truly dangerous presence here; he uses his threatening body and a high, strained voice to stunning, scary effect. Like the movie, Nolte really gets in your face and, for a long time afterwards, sticks in you craw.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Q&A is a major film by one of our finest mainstream directors. As both a portrait of modern-day corruption and an act of sheer storytelling bravura, it is not to be missed."

However, in his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "great little scenes overshadow bigger, more important ones. Characters come and go at speed. Watching the movie is an entertaining ride, but when it's over it's difficult to remember where, exactly, one has been." USA Today gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "Overkill ultimately wears Q & A down, despite two bravura performances and some Hutton understatement that's adequate to the task. So, too, does unrelenting sordidness, a deadly love angle and a score (Ruben Blades) almost as awful as Cy Coleman’s sabotage of Lumet’s Family Business.”

One of the major themes Q & A wrestles with is racism. There is the casual kind between black, white and Latino cops and there’s the more damaging kind that resulted in the end of Reilly and Nancy’s relationship years ago. Racism informs a lot of the characters’ decisions and often motivates their actions. The film addresses racism in an honest way that you rarely see outside of a Spike Lee film. As he did with Prince of the City and later with Night Falls on Manhattan (1997), Lumet sheds light on how cops and crooks can be intricately linked and just how deep corruption runs in a sprawling metropolis like New York City. These films show how law and order works in fascinating detail and that feels authentic, much like the television show Law & Order does year in and year out.

Monday, March 8, 2010

In Country

In the 1980s, I was obsessed with the Vietnam War. My gateway drug, as it was for a lot of people I suspect, was Platoon (1986). After seeing Oliver Stone’s film, I wanted more information. I read all sorts of books about the subject, from fiction like Going After Cacciato, about a soldier who goes AWOL, to memoirs like Chickenhawk, about a helicopter pilot’s experiences during the war. Hell, I even read the TimeLife books, collected Marvel Comics’ groundbreaking series The ‘Nam and watched television shows like Tour of Duty and China Beach. This fascination extended to depictions of the fallout of the war – how it changed the people that came back, men that suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or from the effects of being subjected to Agent Orange while over there.

In the ‘80s, there were two excellent films that examined the lives of veterans after they returned home: the criminally underrated Robert De Niro/Ed Harris drama Jacknife (1989) and Norman Jewison’s In Country (1989). Jewison never wanted to make a film about the Vietnam War as it was a subject that he felt too strongly about – so much so that he left the United States in the 1970s because of it. However, he was drawn to Bobbie Ann Mason’s novel of the same name, which had been published in 1985 and went on to become a best-seller. It told the story about a teenage girl named Samantha Hughes (Emily Lloyd) and her quest to learn more about her father who died in the Vietnam War through her uncle Emmett (Bruce Willis), an emotionally scarred veteran.

The film was hyped as Bruce Willis’ first serious role where he finally dropped his wisecracking persona and really disappeared into a character. In Country received mixed reviews and was generally ignored by a movie-going public that was still not ready to deal with the deep-rooted effects of the war. They chose to ignore it rather than deal with it as the characters in this film do.

Jewison does a good job creating a sense of place, like in the brief scenes where we see Sam jogging to “I’m On Fire” by Bruce Springsteen as she runs through her hometown of Hopewell, Kentucky. One gets the feeling that it’s the kind of small-town where not much happens and not much has changed over the years. We meet Sam as she graduates from high school. Her daily routine consists of jogging in the morning and then hanging out briefly with Emmett and his fellow vets at a local diner. Talking to them piques her curiosity about the Vietnam War. She wants to learn more but Emmett isn’t too forthcoming with details and neither are his friends. There is this unspoken bond between them about not to bring it up.

One day, while going through her mother’s (Joan Allen) closet of old clothes from the 1960s, Sam discovers a box of letters her father wrote to her mother while he was in Vietnam. Reading them gives Sam some insight into a man she never knew. In her quest to understand what her father, Emmett and the others went through over there, she has a one-night stand with Tom (John Terry), one of her uncle’s war buddies. From this, she gets intimate insight into how emotionally damaged these guys are.

The veterans dance that Sam and Emmett attend illustrates, not just the tension that exists between the veterans and the town, but between the vets themselves. For example, Emmett and two other vets get into an argument about whether the war was winnable or not. It eventually boils over into a brief fistfight and Emmett is forced to act as peacemaker. We see the intense bond that exists between these men, a shared painful experience that no one who wasn’t there would understand.

With his handlebar mustache and disheveled thinning hair, Bruce Willis looks nothing like what he usually did at the time in films like Die Hard (1986) or T.V. shows like Moonlighting. He does a fantastic job showing Emmett’s deep-rooted problems, from little things like wearing a skirt around the house, to big things like the traumatizing effect a particularly violent thunderstorm has, causing him to experience terrible flashbacks of a firefight he survived in Vietnam. Willis delivers a powerful monologue about what it was like for him in Vietnam and how he survived over there, as well as how he still lives with the painful memories. In this scene, he conveys an astonishing vulnerability and does some of the best acting of his career. His excellent performance hinted at future dramatic roles and showed that he had range as an actor. For perhaps the first time, Willis wasn’t afraid to mess with his good looks in order to become a flawed character, warts and all.

When In Country was being cast, Willis was looking for a role that would challenge him. He had just done four-and-a-half years of playing the same character on Moonlighting and wanted to do something different. When Willis first agreed to do the role he was concerned about it because he didn’t know right away how he was going to play it. However, the subject matter struck a personal chord with him because, as he said in an interview, “had things been a little different, or had I been a little older, this could have been my path.” During the war, Willis was actually drafted when he turned 18 but never saw action. Later on in the 1970s, he tended bar in New York City and would talk to veterans about their experiences in Vietnam. To help get into character and to prepare for the role, he gained 30 pounds. Willis spent four months making the film in Kentucky and said that it was the “kind of movie you travel along with and it leaves you wrenched out.”

It’s hard to believe that Emily Lloyd is British by birth judging from the authentic southern accent she sports throughout In Country. To prepare for the role, she stayed with a lawyer and his family in Paducah, Kentucky. Sam’s inquisitive nature and unflappable optimism comes in sharp contrast to Emmett’s jaded cynicism. At the heart of the film is the relationship between Sam and Emmett. Lloyd and Willis play well off each other and excellently portray two people who’ve known each other for a long time as evident in the verbal short hand between them and how they relate to one another. For the role of Sam, Jewison saw many American actresses between 16 and 22 but he kept coming back to Lloyd because, like her character, he found the actress, “bursting with life, almost manic in her energy.”

In Country was generally well-received by critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, "The movie is like a time bomb. You sit there, interested, absorbed, sometimes amused, sometimes moved, but wondering in the back of your mind what all of this is going to add up to. Then you find out.” The Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen praised Emily Lloyd’s performance for being “letter perfect – her accent impeccable and her energy immense.” Like Ebert, USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and praised Willis’ "subsidiary performance as Lloyd's reclusive guardian-uncle is admirably short on showboating.” In his review for The Guardian, Derek Malcolm praised Lloyd for her "portrait is of a lively waif who does not intend to be easily defeated by the comedy of life without adding a few jokes of her own, and it is the most complete thing she has so far done on the screen, good as she was in Wish You Were Here.” Time magazine was more mixed in its reaction as it felt that the script "perhaps pursues too many banal and inconsequential matters as it portrays teen life in a small town," but that "the film starts to gather force and direction when a dance, organized to honor the local Viet vets, works out awkwardly." Furthermore, its critic felt that the film was "a lovely, necessary little stitch in our torn time.”

However, The New York Times’ Caryn James criticized the "cheap and easy touches ... that reduce it to the shallowness of a television movie," and found James Horner’s score, "offensive and distracting.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, "While one can respect its lofty intentions, the movie doesn't seem to have any better sense than its high-school heroine of just what it's looking for. At once underdramatized and faintly stagy, it keeps promising revelations that never quite materialize.” Finally, her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, "What's meant to be a cohesive family portrait, a suffering American microcosm, is a shambles of threads dangling and characters adrift. Jewison leaves it to stymied viewers to figure out the gist of it.”

Not much happens plot-wise but that’s okay because In Country’s narrative is driven by its characters. It is one of those slice-of-life films about a girl trying to figure out who her father was and understand what her uncle went through. The film is leisurely paced as it allows us to get to know these interesting characters and the world they inhabit. The dialogue is well-written and really sounds like the way people talk. It’s not showy but honest and heartfelt.

In Country helped satiate my obsession with the Vietnam War and helped bring me some closure as I related to Sam’s own interest in the subject and quest to understand it. By the film’s end, I felt like I understood it a bit more, much like Sam. The film’s emotional payoff comes at its conclusion when Sam and Emmett go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. As they walk past all the names engraved on this impressive monument, it’s hard not to be affected by it and I can only imagine what it must be like in person. Jewison described the place as “the most sacred shrine in America” and called it, “the Wailing Wall of America.” It’s a moving scene done with very little dialogue, just simple gestures that convey more than any fancy speech could, and this is as good a way as ever to end the film on a poignant note. Ultimately, In Country points out that the healing process is long overdue and as a country the United States needs to come to terms with the Vietnam War and finally embrace the people who fought in it, not just those that died over there but the ones that made it back and are still living with it every day of their lives.


Carr, Jay. “Jewison Faces the Conflicts of Vietnam.” Boston Globe. September 28, 1989.

Gristwood, Sarah. “Nobody’s Raspberry Ripple.” The Guardian. January 13, 1990.

Groen, Rick. “Willis and Jewison Circulate with the Story of In Country’s Filming.” The Globe and Mail. September 9, 1989.

Nightingale, Benedict. "The Americanization of Emily." The New York Times. August 20, 1989.

Trebbe, Ann. “Bruce Eyes a Quiet Life.” USA Today. September 15, 1989.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. "At the Movies." The New York Times. August 18, 1989.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Warriors

When The Warriors came out in 1979 it was a modestly budgeted film made by an up-and-coming director named Walter Hill and featured a then-unknown cast. With its nightmarish vision of New York City, the film certainly wasn’t going to be used in any of the city’s tourism ads extolling the virtues of the metropolis. Like many films from the 1970s, New York is presented as a dirty, dangerous place filled with jaded, cynical people (see Taxi Driver and The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three). The Warriors performed decently at the box office but reports of gang-related violence at a few screenings caused the studio to panic and downplay promotional advertisements. But the film had left its mark and over the years it has quietly cultivated a loyal following thanks mainly to regular screenings on television and the occasional midnight showing at repertory theaters.

The film’s premise is pure B-movie hokum. New York City is dominated by gangs that hail from the various boroughs. One man named Cyrus (Roger Hill) dreams of uniting all of these different groups into a 60,000-strong army that will run the city and answer to no one, not the police and not organized crime. To this end, he convinces representatives from 100 gangs to gather in Van Cortlandt Park. However, much like Malcolm X before him, Cyrus’ call for revolution is shattered when he is killed by an assassin, a grinning maniac named Luther (David Patrick Kelly) from the Rogues. With their leader missing in action thanks to the ensuing chaos, Swan (Michael Beck) takes over a gang known as the Warriors. They find themselves trapped in Manhattan, framed for Cyrus’ death. They must fight their way back to their turf on Coney Island and go through several territories of other gangs out for their blood. It’s a chase movie broken up by several exciting fight scenes and commented on by a late night disc jockey (Lynne Thigpen) like a Greek chorus as she spins tunes that offer clues for what awaits the Warriors next. It is this simple yet effective set-up that makes the film work so well.

The tension between the Warriors’ stoic war chief Swan and cocky gang member Ajax (James Remar) is nicely done and gives an edgy quality to their group dynamic. Swan is the archetypal Hill protagonist: a laconic man of action and of few words, much like Ryan O’Neal’s no-nonsense wheelman in The Driver (1978) and Michael Pare’s soldier of fortune in Streets of Fire (1984). With a few notable exceptions, the Warriors are a pretty indistinguishable lot. You’ve got the inexperienced guy, the not-so smart guy, the tough guy, etc. Only Michael Beck and James Remar really stand out and it’s no surprise that they were the two actors that went on to illustrious careers, especially Remar who has had a diverse career that includes Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and Sex and the City. That being said, the actors playing the rest of the Warriors do just enough to invest you in their plight so that you care about what happens to them.
Deborah Van Valkenburgh plays Mercy, a woman the Warriors cross paths with during their run-in with the Orphans. She is tough and oozes attitude and sexual appeal. She’s one of Hill’s quintessential smart, tough-talking women, like Amy Madigan’s soldier in Streets of Fire and Annette O’Toole’s long-suffering girlfriend to Nick Nolte’s cop in 48 Hrs (1982). There’s a telling scene near the end of the film where two couples get on the subway and sit across from a tired, disheveled and bruised Swan and Mercy. They are all roughly the same age but they couldn’t be more different. The two couples have just come from a prom and are a laughing and smiling while our badass heroes look exhausted but defiant having survived a tumultuous night.

The push and pull dynamic between Swan and Ajax enhances the relentless urgency that kicks in once the Warriors are on the run, fighting their way back home. Hill is only interested in constantly propelling the narrative forward as our heroes run the gauntlet of gangs. The closer they get, the tougher the gangs are that they have to face. And they are a colorful assortment, some are rather lame, like the Orphans whose uniform consists of nothing more than a plain t-shirt and blue jeans, and some look really cool, like the Baseball Furies, a bizarre-looking gang dressed up in Yankee pinstripes and oddly-colored face-paint. You would think that they would look ridiculous but there is something about them, maybe it’s their lack of speaking, that is creepy.

Hill directs the action sequences in a clean, straight-forward style so that there is never any confusion about who’s fighting who and where. He uses editing to help convey the kinetic action in these scenes so that they’re always exciting to watch. The film’s score features ominous electronic rock music comparable to what John Carpenter was also doing at the time (see Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween). The pulsating score matches the rhythm of the editing. The music also enhances the tough, street vibe as it chugs along much like the subway that runs through the city delivering our heroes to safety.

The genesis for The Warriors came about when producer Lawrence Gordon sent director Walter Hill the screenplay along with a copy of Sol Yurick’s novel. Hill was drawn to the “extreme narrative simplicity and stripped down quality of the script.” As written, it was a realistic take on street gangs but Hill was obsessed with comic books and wanted to divide the film into chapters and then have each chapter “come to life starting with a splash panel.” Gordon and Hill were originally planning to make a western but when the financing on the project fell through, they took The Warriors to Paramount Pictures because the studio was interested in making youth films at the time.
Gordon and Hill did extensive casting in New York City. Originally, in Yurick’s book there are no white characters but, according to the director, the studio did not want an all-black cast for “commercial reasons.” Hill had screened an independent film called Madman (1978) for Sigourney Weaver whom he ended up casting in Alien (1979). The film also featured Michael Beck as the male lead. Hill was so impressed by his performance in Madman that he cast Beck in The Warriors. In order to depict the many fights in the film realistically, Hill had stunt coordinator Craig R. Baxley put the cast through stunt school.

Hill shot the entire film in New York City with some interiors done at Astoria Studios. The shooting schedule consisted of shooting from sun down to sun up. It wasn’t the easiest shoot. For example, while shooting in the Bronx, bricks were tossed at the crew. One of the cast members remembered filming a scene on Avenue A being canceled because there was a double homicide nearby. For the big gang summit at the beginning of the film, Hill wanted real gang members in the scene and they also had off-duty police officers in the crowd so that there would be no trouble. Actual gang members wanted to challenge some of the cast members but were dealt with by production security. The production fell behind schedule and went over budget.

Originally, at the climactic Coney Island confrontation at the end of the film, David Patrick Kelly wanted to use two dead pigeons for his now famous line but Hill did not think they would work. Instead, Kelly used bottles and improvised his famous line, “Waaaaarriors, come out to plaaaaaay!” This came from a man the actor knew in downtown New York that would make fun of him.
Hill was unable to realize his comic book look due to the low budget and tight post-production schedule because of a fixed release date in order to get it out in theaters before a rival gang picture called The Wanderers (1979). It opened on February 9, 1979 without advance screenings or a decent promotional campaign. People tend to forget the notorious reputation the film had back in the day. The next weekend it was linked to accounts of vandalism and three killings – two in Southern California and one in Boston. As a result, Paramount removed ads from radio and television entirely and display ads in newspapers were reduced to the film's title, rating and participating theaters. In reaction, 200 theaters in the United States added security people to curb any potential trouble. In addition, theater owners were relieved of their contractual obligations if they did not want to show the film, and amazingly Paramount offered to pay costs for additional security and damages due to vandalism.

After things calmed down somewhat, the studio expanded the display ads to take advantage of reviews from reputable critics like The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, who gave it a rave review. She wrote, “The Warriors is a real moviemaker’s movie: it has in visual terms the kind of impact that ’Rock Around the Clock’ did behind the titles of Blackboard Jungle. The Warriors is like visual rock.” However, the film was panned by many critics. The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold felt that, "none of Hill's dynamism will save The Warriors from impressing most neutral observers as a ghastly folly.” In his review for Newsweek, David Ansen wrote, “another problem arises when the gang members open their mouths: their banal dialogue is jarringly at odds with Hill's hyperbolic visual scheme.” Time magazine’s Frank Rich wrote, “Unfortunately, sheer visual zip is not enough to carry the film; it drags from one scuffle to the next ... But The Warriors is not lively enough to be cheap fun or thoughtful enough to be serious". Yurick expressed his disappointment in the film version and speculated that it scared some people because "it appeals to the fear of a demonic uprising by lumpen youth", and appealed to many teenagers because it "hits a series of collective fantasies.”

I’m still on the fence about the comic book panel framing device imposed by Hill for the Ultimate Director’s Cut DVD. The new tweaks to the film are obvious right from the get-go as the director narrates an opening scrawl featuring parallels to some nonsense about what we are about to see with Greek mythology. Some of the scene transitions are now done in a more overt, comic book style a la panels featuring stylized frames from the film. I understand that this was Hill’s intention all along, acting as a homage to his love of comic books as a kid but it undercuts the nightmarish vibe of The Warriors that made it so powerful in the first place. This is glaringly apparent at the end when the triumphant Warriors stand on the beach at Coney Island as Joe Walsh’s “In the City” plays and the stylized comic book panel motif ruins the poignancy of the moment.
The Warriors is set almost entirely at night and presents the city as a dark, foreboding labyrinth fraught with danger that lurks around every corner and in every alley as the Warriors not only evade the cops but also rival gangs that hold them responsible for killing Cyrus. John Carpenter would take this dystopic vision to the next logical level with Escape from New York (1981) by re-imagining the city as a walled-in prison guarded by an army. Even though Hill claims this to be a comic book-like film, it really doesn’t feel or look like one despite his recent tinkering. The gritty setting, the ominous music and the constant danger that our heroes are in doesn’t evoke a comic book vibe at all. And this is what fans of The Warriors like about it.


Barra, Allen. “The Warriors Fights On.” Salon. November 28, 2005.

Ducker, Eric. “New York Mythology.” Fader. October 3, 2005.