The Codes and Clothes of Cinema’s Street Warriors

Roller skates, leather waistcoats, flick knives and synthesisers. Sounds like a very dodgy disco, but these are also some of the key stylistic traits of Enzo G. Castellari’s The Bronx Warriors (1982), recently released on a Region 2 DVD box set alongside Escape from the Bronx (1983) and The New Barbarians (1982). Unapologetically ripping off such American hits as The Warriors (1979) and Escape From New York (1981), Castellari’s trilogy can be used to trace the evolution of this small cluster of films prominent in the early 80’s where highly stylised street gangs fought for their right to live apart from consumerist society.

The gangs in The Warriors and The Bronx Warriors govern sections of New York. If the individual gangs were to unite these areas could be impenetrable by police, but gang rivalry prevents this and their existence is under constant threat. While capturing the mood of 80’s post-punk counterculture, the lifestyle of a street warrior also represents a far more primitive, yet chivalrous, way of life. Each gang lives by a code with one essential rule; survival of the gang. Even if a street warrior loses faith in their leader they will still honour their gang. This does, however, give them free reign to be is immoral as they want to anybody outside of the gang. Despite his bravery, Ajax in The Warriors will happily use his strength to force himself upon what appears to be a vulnerable female victim. He’s soon punished for this denunciation of chivalry when she turns out to be an undercover cop and slaps on the handcuffs.

Let the look do the talking

Despite their coded existence, street warriors are in desperate lack of emotional depth. Trash, leader of The Bronx Warriors’ central gang ‘The Riders’ (aptly named after the fact they ride motorbikes), is particularly wooden, but what he lacks in facial expression he makes up for in attire. His leather waistcoat symbolises the animal skins tribesmen traditionally don after killing a creature, displaying this trophy from their victory for all to see. His bike is his steed, the glowing skull adorning it’s handlebars a further trophy, akin to a shrunken head. This skull stays with him in Escape from the Bronx, and adorns the courageous freedom fighter Scorpion’s car in The New Barbarians; a symbol of timeless, un-crushable chivalry. Each street gang has their own unique style and characteristics, some of which are absurdly theatrical. Particularly entertaining are the ‘Iron Men’ in The Bronx Warriors, a rather silly tap dancing gang that the film wouldn’t be complete without. Surprisingly effective with their swords as they tap in rhythm, they sadly never face off against the roller skating, hockey stick wielding ‘Zombies’.

Roller skates aren’t just handy for traversing the Bronx; as seen in Luc Besson’s subversive and hip Subway (1985) they’re perfect for navigating Paris’ subway system. Subway finds Fred, played with effortless cool by Christopher Lambert, seeking refuge in the subway after committing a robbery, and deciding to set up camp with the underclass of oddballs already living there. Be it roller skates, bulging muscles or an addiction to drumming these subway dwellers, like the street warriors, are defined by their quirks. Their rejection of the bourgeoisie has led them to this alternate lifestyle in a labyrinth subway where inept police struggle for control. The most literal representation of the street warrior’s values can be found in George A. Romero’s criminally underrated Knightriders (1981), in which a troupe of travellers resist consumerist life by performing medieval jousting tournaments, fully kitted out in knights armour atop their motorbikes. Sat around campfires, looking like King Arthur strolled onto the set of Easy Rider (1969), they openly discuss the medieval philosophies they cherish.

Not a zombie to be seen

From the Bronx to Italy, then to Paris and back to America the styles and themes set by the street warriors were universally recognised, and their enemies were always the same. While the gangs live by moral codes their enemies discarded these in favour of greed and self gratification. As well as the ever present threat of power hungry co-operations and police (generally in league with one another), narcissistic individuals within the gangs themselves threaten to disrupt the equilibrium. These bad eggs thrive on chaos, as encapsulated in The Warriors during its finale as Luther poetically explains his motivation for assassinating the gang leader who pledged to unite the gangs; ‘No reason, I just like doing things like that’.

In Escape from the Bronx the gangs have put aside their differences to protect their land from destruction by the fascistic GC Corporation, who want to rebuild the Bronx as a futuristic, consumerist haven. The exterminators cleansing the Bronx of its warriors are but faceless drones in their silver spacesuits and bubble helmets; slaves of the technological, totalitarian regime that threatens the gangs’ existence. Scorned and seemingly pumped with steroids Trash cranks his action hero status up a few notches, shooting helicopters down with handguns and kidnapping the president of GC Corporation in a narrative device swiped from John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (the clue was in the title).

Call me Plissken

Trash could never quite reach the level of badass attained by Snake Plissken, the ballsy antihero in Escape from New York and the subsequent Escape from LA (1996), played in scowls and grunts by cult icon Kurt Russell. Turned against the country he once fought for by disdain for the governments revocation of personal freedoms (particularly, in Escape from LA, the right to smoke), Snake becomes America’s most notorious criminal. Upon his capture in Escape from New York he is unwillingly enlisted to rescue the president, who is held hostage in New York; now a massive state prison. Escape from LA uses an almost identical premise, and astute readers may be able to guess the setting. Stylistically Carpenter’s films fit into the street warrior’s canon, with gangs and individuals defined by their quirks and costumes ruling over lawless land. However, rather than choosing their territory the sub culture is imprisoned in these desolate cities. The totalitarian regime has successfully contained all rebels, and is free develop ever more destructive weapons to wage war against earths other super powers. By Escape from LA technological advancements have brought the world to the brink of annihilation, so being such a decent chap Snake reverts society back to basics in the finale by disabling every single electronic device on earth.

We don’t get to see the effects of Snake’s shut down, but in The New Barbarians the world’s been reduced to a post apocalyptic, war ravished wasteland. Trash and ‘The Riders’ are presumably all piles of radioactive ash, and survivors are trapped in provisional settlements, rapidly running out of rations and afraid of moving lest the run into the sadistic ‘Templars’. Crudely blending a Nazi mentality with futuristic weaponry and medieval stylisation the [Knights] ‘Templars’ have taken it as their duty to cleanse the wastelands. Spears, codpieces and catapults clash with laser guns and transparent armour as the’ Templars’ rape and murder. Only a minority of rebels oppose the Templars; namely the righteous ex-Templar Scorpion, who’s formed a rocky partnership with Nadir, a Robin Hood-esque warrior who delivers justice with a bow and explosive arrows before using his silky smooth knack for seduction to comfort maidens in distress. Through duals and ritual punishments the ‘Templars’ follow a merciles code, their sadism representing the threat technologically advanced street warriors pose when corrupt by power, turning them into The New Fascists.

Nice Codpiece

The noble, pure street warrior wouldn’t be caught with anything more advanced then a cassette player, so as audiences became hooked to their computers in the 90’s their charm faded. A notable attempt to hardwire the aesthetic, and themes, to the internet generation is evident in the immense guilty pleasure that is Hackers (1995). Seeing 90’s America as an Orwellian nightmare the young cast of future stars (including Johnny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie and Scooby Doo’s companion Matthew Lilliard) claim the internet as fertile ground for free expression and rebellion. Rather than drab, motion free websites separated by purgatorial dial-up loading times, it turns out the internet in the 90’s is actually an intense cyber sprawl, where logging in allows you to drift freely around a digital city in which bytes of information zip amidst skyscrapers formed of data files. You may also be surprised to hear that hackers aren’t spotty nerds but sexy, skilled roller bladers (skates were no longer cool) sporting extreme fashions. And playing Wipeout (1995) really well is a great way to flirt with girls. Though they squabble amongst themselves like rival gangs, hackers of the world are poised to unite to take down Plague, a narcissistic computer programmer intent on framing hackers as cover for him extorting millions of dollars from his employer.

Google must be around here somewhere

The affair was short lived, with countercultural warriors soon dumping punk inspired tribal garb, and their unpolished street aesthetic, for something altogether sleeker. That something conveniently promoted designer shades and mobile phones as Neo, Trinity and co came to typify the street warrior’s modern incarnation. Despite similar plot devices, a story focusing on mans greed in the technological age threatening human existence, and a lead actor with the emotional depth of a flat pack Ikea wardrobe, The Matrix (1999) seduced audiences with futuristic glitz, rather than pining for traditional values. The race was on to trade your roller skates for a trench coat.

By James Taylor

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