Sunday, November 10, 2013
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The Bronx Warriors
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an American film of good fortune at the box office must be in want of an unofficial remake. Or such was the rule of thumb during the glory days of Italian exploitation cinema. Walter Hill released ‘The Warriors’ in 1979, the same year that George Miller’s ‘Mad Max’ came out of nowhere, established a blueprint for the post-apocalyptic subgenre and made a star out of Mel Gibson. Two years later, John Carpenter’s ‘Escape from New York’ hit the screen.
Under the aegis of legendary exploitation producer Fabrizio de Angelis, director Enzo G. Castellari squeezed enough material out of various combinations of these three movies to fuel a loose trilogy. The first instalment was released in 1982 under the title ‘1990: I guerrieri del Bronx’. He cast a fading Hollywood star, a bona fide B-movie legend, a complete unknown he’d discovered at a gym, and a fuckload of cool bikes. Oh, and he gave his daughter a starring role as well.
It is with this unemotive young lady that the film opens: Ann (Stefania Girolami) is on the verge of her eighteenth birthday and set to inherit the chairmanship of her father Samuel Fisher (Ennio Girolami)’s arms manufacturing business. Ann has a moral problem with this and instead of, oh I don’t know, doing missionary work overseas or simply asset stripping the business and setting up a charitable institution instead, she runs off to the Bronx. In the real world, this would count as a particularly ill-thought-out option. In Castellari’s warped version of New York, it’s downright insanity.
Ann immediately runs into a gang called The Zombies, whose gimmick is they dress like hockey players, tootle about on stakes and wield their hockey sticks in pseudo-menacing fashion as they go after defenceless girls … I think this is a good place to stop and say a few words about post-whatever the Bronx and the societal dynamics of a lawless territory. I use the phrase “post-whatever” because, in terms of imagery and narrative, much of ‘The Bronx Warriors’ is a textbook example of the post-apocalypse genre. Except that nothing seems to have happened: no war, no nuclear holocaust, no breakdown of social order. Scenes in Manhattan show the city ticking along quite nicely; Fisher’s offices are well appointed; and there seems to be a constant stream of traffic across the Brooklyn Bridge. Yet for some reason the police have declared the Bronx a no-go area and lawlessness reigns supreme.
Okay, let’s suspend disbelief and accept that a very localised incident of social breakdown occurred and the police, the army and the voting public just thought “fuck it”. Here’s the rub, though: the Bronx hasn’t been barricaded, walled off, or bedecked with warning signs. Nor do the warring gangs who live there attempt to expand beyond the Bronx or staging raiding parties into more affluent areas. Moreover, while every building is a ruin, rubble is strewn everywhere and danger lurks around every corner, the roads are all perfectly maintained and two of the major gangs – The Tigers and The Riders – run a fleet of souped-up roadsters and big-ass bikes respectively, all of which are gleamingly well polished, without ever having recourse to a gas station or a car wash.
But movie-logic is at work here – and Italian exploitation movie-logic at that – so let’s winch our already suspended disbelief a few feet higher. Let’s see how long it hangs there while we review the gang-culture which this lawless chunk of NYC has spawned. Perhaps in order to distinguish certain hierarchical divisions, perhaps to suggest the uniforms of warring armies, or perhaps because the creative team behind the film wanted to rip off as many successful movies as possible, all of the gangs have a distinct look, a specific gimmick, and a remarkable talent for bringing to mind characters from other films. Hence The Zombies, who give the proceedings a ‘Rollerball’ feel; The Scavengers, whose dusty garb and feral behaviour evoke a whole trance of post-apocalypse antagonists; the musically-inclined, bowled-hatted droog-a-likes who call themselves The Iron Men and whose leader is a woman (go figure); and The Tigers, who sound more like a hockey team – I mean, seriously, even Nottingham’s hockey team is called The fuckin’ Panthers – and are led by the King of the Bronx (Fred Williamson) and it’s pure coincidence that his handle makes him sound like Isaac Hayes’s the Duke of New York in ‘Escape from New York’. A coincidence, I tells ya!
And then there’s the gang our nominal hero leads: The Riders. At least they have a name that means something, since they all ride bikes. Superficially at least, they resemble the kind of gang you’d expect to inhabit a lawless and cop-free Bronx. Moreover, individual personalities are discernible within the gang, to such a degree actually that internal tensions are at a constant simmer. What utterly scuttles their claim to bad-motherfuckery however is their leader, our aforementioned nominal hero: Trash (Mark Gregory). Trash is a man in whom the dichotomy of brick-shithouse physique and mincing effeminacy never comes closer to being reconciled. Every frame he’s in, Trash challenges the suspension of disbelief. It’s impossible to believe in him as the leader of a hard-as-nails biker gang. It’s in the mane of hair and the pretty-boy lips. It’s in the skin tight jeans and the pert buttocks. It’s in the way he walks as if … well, check out the way he walks next time you watch the film and come to your own conclusions. It’s in the way he sits up straight with a slightly odious expression as he rides his bike. Put it this way: the dude couldn’t look more prissy if he rode that hog side-saddle.
So it’s yet another fuck you to the suspension of disbelief when he rescues Ann from The Zombies and they quickly become an item, despite the complete lack of chemistry between them. Meanwhile [he typed with a sense of relief] back in Manhattan, Fisher ain’t too happy that his little princess has gone on the lam, and decides that it’s Hammer time. Hammer (Vic Morrow) is a hard-bitten cop who was born in the Bronx and –
I said wait a fucking minute. There’s a character in this movie called Hammer and he’s not played by Fred Williamson. Really? I mean, fucking really?
– who was born in the Bronx and hates what it’s become or something along those lines or maybe they just pay him a really good bonus, anyway the upshot is that Hammer heads into the Bronx with a heart full of embittered hatred for its residence and sets about rescuing Ann by means of inciting a turf war between the various gangs because kicking off an all-out war between people who are armed to the teeth and place no value on human life is the best way to keep a teenage girl out of harm’s way while you quietly extricate her, non?
Putting aside this (il)logic, and desisting out of deference from harping on out about Morrow’s hammy and decidedly unthreatening performance (his next film was ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’), it has to be admitted that the idea of court intrigue amongst street gangs isn’t disinteresting. However, Castellari is a go-to guy for action, not Machievellian intrigue, and there’s a chunky section of the film that sags as a result.
Things get back in gear when one of Trash’s own effects an act of betrayal, a deal with a rival gang doesn’t go the way Hammer intended, and pressure from Fisher to (pun intended) put the hammer down, culminates in a private army storming the Bronx with horses and flamethrowers. Yes, you read that right. No, I haven’t been drinking. The scene is magnificent in its lack of coherence. A helicopter hovers over a gang hideout, the thwacking noise of its rotors inciting no alarm or concern. Men in silver uniforms carrying automatic weapons and flamethrowers start sprinting across wasteland and clambering over walls (because, yeah, in this lawless tract scarred by the battles of rival gangs, nobody posts a guard outside their HQ, amiright?) and the logic-savvy viewer would be quick to intuit that said tooled up guys got there by abseiling down from said helicopter. But then the fucking cavalry comes thundering in and the WTF-o-meter malfunctions in a buzz of blue light and a plume of smoke. Just to contextualise, this is a movie where a fucking armoured van doesn’t make it a single block in an early scene, and yet here’s some dudes on horseback who have just ridden through a borough even the cops don’t go near and nothing happened to them.
So, yeah: ‘The Bronx Warriors’ is an incredibly stupid film in which events follow on from each other without ever quite linking up or understanding what the word “narrative” means. Much of it hinges on a protagonist who’s quite simply risible, while the most charismatic actor in the piece – Williamson – is given bugger all to do. But here’s the thing: absent the talky “play the gangs off against each other” section, and ‘The Bronx Warriors’ is insanely entertaining. Castellari’s genius was for the action film and he never let deficiencies of script or dearth of budget get in the way of delivering crowd-pleasing entertainment. Even if the crowd in question weren’t exactly cinephiles. Or maybe because they weren’t.