Characters that I love #5 – David Patrick Kelly as Luther – The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979)

As difficult – nay impossible – as it is to imagine now, Walter Hill’s gaudy gangbanger romp sparked huge controversy upon its release back in 1979. Perhaps the tough-talking tagline (‘These are the Armies of The Night. They are 60,000 strong. They outnumber the cops three to one. They could run New York City. Tonight they’re all out to get the Warriors’) was a touch rich for the ultra-conservative Reaganite cultural protectors of the time.

However, anyone who clapped eyes on the film would know within moments that it was not one to be taken particularly seriously. In the famed opening sequence, the gangs of New York are revealed to be a collection of slender, extravagantly costumed prancers with more in common with the cast of Glee than the Bloods and Crips of LA. If anything, the sight of so many metrosexual gentlemen should have given the NYPD a morale boost. Over-the-top in the right way, The Warriors rattles by in a flash of colour, music and expertly choreographed fight sequences.

Perhaps the least palatable element of the film is its pathologically retrograde sexual politics; the one female character given voice is a scantily clad prostitute threatened with rape by the most noble Warrior, then told that she’d probably enjoy it. The all-female gang The Lizzies (geddit?) transpire to be laughably awful at fighting, though even Andrea Dworkin might’ve had to suppress a chuckle at their shambolic attempts at scrapping.

In the middle of all the camp and circumstance, one turn stands out as particularly ridiculous. In David Patrick Kelly’s Luther, we are treated to one of the most singularly unthreatening screen villain performances of all time. With the frame of a child, the voice of a flu-stricken teenage girl, and the hair of Rod Hull, Luther gobbles up the scenery, screeching and snivelling all the way. In later years, Kelly developed a reputation as a wiry, intense character actor (as well as turning up in Commando as the ill-fated Sully) but here his performance is hysterical – so strange it’s almost literally mindblowing.

The leader of denim n’ leather bad boy outfit The Rogues, Luther is first spotted in the crowd that gathers to watch big boss Cyrus deliver a booming basso keynote speech. Apropro of nothing, Luther decides to cap Cyrus, and pin the blame upon The Warriors, thus kicking the chase plot into action. In the course of the next hour-and-a-bit, Luther proceeds to indimidate his cowardly, bovine-looking lieutenant, and throw a petulant wobbler at a kiosk girl who reasonably demands payment for some candy (What kind of hardcore gang distributes sweeties to its members?) Luther’s dual coup-de-grace is his nails-down-a-blackboard mantra of ‘WARR-EE-ORRRRS… COME OUT TO PLAY-EE-AYYY’, and his majestically pathetic subsequent capitulation on a Coney Island beach.

London’s wonderful Prince Charles Cinema recently screened the film, although unfortunately in its bowdlerized “director’s cut” version, replete with catastrophically rubbish cartoon transitions which derail its relentless narrative momentum. However, for all the disappointment that caused, it was more than made up for by the chance to see such an outrageous performance on the big screen.

Here are Luther’s best bits, thanks to wonderfully named YouTuber killpoo1111111111111.

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3 thoughts on “Characters that I love #5 – David Patrick Kelly as Luther – The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979)

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