Betting Big on The Warriors
Remaking The Warriors won’t be easy, but The Russo Brothers are possibly the best men for the job.
Yesterday morning, Deadline reported that Joe and Anthony Russo have signed on to adapt The Warriors as a one-hour drama with Paramount TV and Hulu. The brothers, fresh off their success directing Captain America: Civil War, will partner with writer Frank Baldwin to create a take that “will honor the original film while adding its own unique brand of grit, pulp, sex, and violence.” The Warriors, Walter Hill’s 1979 cult classic, follows the Coney Island Warriors as they journey from the Bronx to their home in southern Brooklyn. After they are framed for the murder of the city’s most powerful gang leader, they must fight their way past gangs so colorfully clothed that they almost belong in a comic book.
In the years since its production, the film has maintained its status in the cultural lexicon for many reasons, including its visual flair, its hyper-realistic depiction of gangs in 1970s New York City, and its memorable dialogue. However, the magic of the movie was not altogether planned. It was the result of many circumstances the filmmakers could not control. Although it will be difficult capture the unique style of the original film without these constraints, the Russo brothers may be the filmmakers most apt to do so.
One of greatest strengths of The Warriors is its extensive depiction of New York City. According to Jackson Connor in The Village Voice, the 1979 film “was shot almost entirely on location in the streets, trains, and subway stations” of the city. There is an added layer of realism that comes with on location shooting, especially in a city as densely constructed and populated as New York. The dilapidated Coney Island and the various subway stations portrayed in the film all feel “lived in” in a manner that was difficult to achieve in a studio set.
But the impact of the shooting on location did not end there. Production on the film was beset by interactions with gang members throughout the city. Connor continues:
“If the right person didn’t receive his fair share of the cut, a truck’s tires might get mysteriously slashed, or a brick might fall unexpectedly from a rooftop. Once, while filming below an elevated subway track one night, Hill says a local gang began urinating on the actors from above. According to Beck, another shoot had to be called off after dozens of kids swarmed the block’s abandoned buildings, jeering the Warriors incessantly from the normally vacant windows.”
The consequences of this derision, save for the trouble it caused the film’s producers during the shoot, were beneficial. It instilled an extraordinary solidarity among the actors and created a dire need to appease the neighborhoods’ ruling crews. The cast’s camaraderie is apparent in the final product, as is the result of the crew’s attempts at appeasement. Arguably the most iconic scene in the film, the conclave of the gangs from all five boroughs, is that result. With too tight a budget to wardrobe the extras needed for the scene, and in an attempt at peace, the production hired local gang members to join the scene. Their presence and their passion for Cyrus’s revolutionary words make the scene even more emotionally resonant than it would have been otherwise.
Unfortunately, as movie location scout Nick Carr explains for The Guardian, a New York like the one shown in The Warriors no longer exists. In a grand sense, gentrification has pushed gangs out of the major population centers in the city and replaced much of the ramshackle backdrops of the original film with clean and modern ones. In a more specific sense, much of the iconic architecture of Coney Island, the centerpiece of the film and home of The Warriors, is gone. Therein lies one of the challenges for the Russo brothers. They have to recreate The Warriors’ version of New York in a city that stands in stark contrast to the one shown in the film, all on the limited budget of a television pilot.
Luckily, the Russo brothers have extensive experience working within the confines of television production. Before they directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier, two of the brothers most prominent roles were as directors of the pilots for Arrested Development and Community, where they stayed on to executive produce and continued to direct many episodes throughout the series. Writing for Vulture, Adam Sternbergh reports that the Russos’ time in TV left them “used to tight (and punishingly busy) schedules and prepared to make the thousands of decisions necessary to produce a large scale production. Plus, they had to deal with Chevy Chase, a task far more difficult than even the most challenging of production difficulties.
Furthermore, the brothers’ previous directorial experiences have prepared them to mimic, and maybe even improve upon, another key feature of the original film: visceral, grounded action. As Tom Breihan notes in an article for Deadspin:
“The fights are a whole lot better than most of what you’ll see in cheap American movies from the ’70s. The Warriors didn’t have the budget for a real stunt team, so stunt coordinator Craig Baxley […] had to teach the actors how to fight on-camera. The fistfights ‐ the train-station showdown with the cops, the park brawl with the Baseball Furies, the bathroom scuffle with the Punks ‐ are all intense and impactful, and they all move the story forward.”
Coincidentally, Anthony and Joe Russo have both the experience and the perspective to bring this vision into reality once again. They landed the gig directing The Winter Soldier after Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, was impressed with their action direction in the paintball episodes of Community. The Winter Solider and Captain America: Civil War are two of the best received and most action-packed entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Considering the scale and complexity of the scenes in those two films the Russos have more than enough experience to tackle the frenetic nature of The Warriors.
Yet, the most telling evidence of the Russos’ readiness is their perspective on action in a story. In an interview with Deadline, the brothers were asked how they are able to shoot scenes where “it almost hurts, every time someone gets punched or flung into a building”? In his response, Joe Russo mentioned exactly what made the scenes in the original film so fantastic: physical stunts that strive for realism.
Later on in the interview, they discussed the airport scene from Civil War, an extraordinarily complex segment with many main characters fighting one another with a near absurd variety of superpowers. Two major revelations stand out from their discussion of the scene. First, and foremost, as Anthony explains, “Joe and I always say that our guide through action is always story and character. We’re always driving right at the character beats, or else the action beat doesn’t work.” The viewpoint he expresses here is perfectly in line with the story-driven action of the original film. By focusing on character and story, especially considering the increased depth of storytelling that the length of a television season provides, the Russos may even elevate the action to a greater level resonance in the new adaptation. The other meaningful disclosure relates to the process by which they filmed the scene. The scene takes place at a massive airport, but the majority of it was shot on “a big slab of concrete with green screen all around it.” Though the circumstances behind the production of the film and this remake are different, namely the budgetary constraints, this gives me hope that the brothers will effectively compensate for the difficulties of shooting on location in New York today.
The last strength that the Russo brothers bring to the table is their experience directing a film in which the characters are part of an established world. One of Joe Russo’s favorite parts of working on Civil War was the opportunity to take the audience on an emotional ride “in a way that you can’t in a traditional story where everybody needs an introduction. The movie could never work if it was a film where each of those characters needed a traditional introduction. That would have been a disaster.” The Warriors was not a film with characters whose backstories were established in previous movies, but it was a film with an amount background similar to that delivered in Civil War. As Tom Breihan confirms in Deadspin:
“There are no origin stories here, and we never find out who these kids are outside their involvement in the gang. We never learn if there are more Warriors down in Coney Island, or why this gang, like so many of the others, is more racially mixed than any gang that exists in real life. We don’t learn anything about these kids’ parents or the jobs they work when they aren’t fighting each other. But we learn what we need to learn about the characters.”
Given their success in developing a story where one only learns what they need to know about the characters, Anthony and Joe Russo are poised excel in bringing the world of The Warriors to life on television.
All of this being said, I have one major caveat to the idea that the Russo brothers are the perfect agents to direct the new series: their busy schedules. On top of directing the two new Avengers films, the brothers are in line to produce a remake of The Thomas Crown Affair and executive produce a new comedy for Showtime AND have recently started a China-based production company. Even with their ample skills and experience, I am unsure if anyone can balance the number of obligations they have without sacrificing the quality of one of them. Then again, making a Civil War movie seemed impossible only a few years ago, and we know how that turned out.