Streets of Fire is one of those 80’s flicks that I’d frequently heard of in the pop culture peripherals, but never saw and actually knew very little about. I knew that Walter Hill (Last Man Standing), who’s films I generally love, directed it, that it had a weird, stylized and off-kilter in-film universe and involved music, somehow. Also, that there’s also something of a cult following akin to that for flicks like The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension and Dune (incidentally both also released 1984) out there for it.
And…that’s about it.
So, when I stumbled upon it on a streamer we use, I thought ‘what the hell’ and decided to finally delve into this odd box office failure from 1984, which proved to be one helluva year for movies and television.
Streets of Fire takes place in a weird, alternate reality Chicago (I think), where the 1950’s dominate the styles and attitudes, but the framing is pure 80’s. In this world we are introduced to a superstar pop singer named ‘Ellen Aim’ (Diane Lane) who is violently kidnapped mid-concert by a pompadour-rocking motorbike gang led by creepy bastard ‘Raven’ (Willem Dafoe) for unclear reasons, though Touchy Rapey McNo-No is STRONGLY hinted at. A former hometown troublemaker turned mercenary named ‘Tom Cole’ (Michael Pare’) is called home by his sister to rescue ‘Ellen’, who also happens to be a former flame. And off we go.
SO, as par usual, on a quiet stay-cation Friday afternoon home from the ole grindstone, I hit the pipe, poured a coffee (or was it wine?) and turned over a fresh page on the note pad before hitting Play.
The pen hit the paper soon after. Scribbles await…
–A Rock n Roll Fable? So, when this Title Card appeared, literally the first thing the flick gives us, I was quickly concerned. With a couple notable exceptions (The Who’s Tommy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall), I’m not into musicals…so is that somehow what this is going to end up being? Luckily, not exactly (though it had been considered in the flick’s pre-production).
–Rick! Fellow Canuck Rick Moranis (who’s old work desk I’ve actually sat my ass on as I smoked a joint with his former roommate, an ex’s semi-famous father) turns up as ‘Ellen’s obnoxious, wannabe boyfriend / manager ‘Billy Fish’, and I do mean obnoxious.
–Holy shit! SO 80’s! We open with a rousing, fast-paced concert performance that just screams the production’s time period, complete with rapid fire, MTV edits and big, big hair.
–Already looks great. Pure Walter Hill. In past reviews, I have frequently praised the work of the Scott Brothers, particularly younger brother Tony Scott (RIP), for their excellent use of larger-than-life cinematography and quick-cut editing, but it’s got to be acknowledged that there were others at the time who also emerged with a similar style, with names like Adrian Lyne (Jacob’s Ladder) and Alan Parker (Angel Heart) rubbing shoulders with the Scotts in that regard. However, Walter Hill MAY come the closest to duplicating that particular style, while also carving his own along the way. The most obvious elements of comparison would be the deft use of zoomed-in telephoto lens ‘long shots’, smoky interiors and the liberal application of neon, all captured via expensive multi-camera set-ups, employed for maximum coverage.
–Wait…Diane Lane?! I hadn’t bothered to research Streets of Fire before I fired it up, but I was quickly reminded that 1984 was another busy one for the stunningly gorgeous (to this day) Diane Lane, who at this point in her career was pumping out 2 high-profile movies a year, the other in ’84 being the much-maligned The Cotton Club, in which she makes a striking flapper girl with her enthusiastic portrayal of femme fatale ‘Vera Cicero’.
–Hold up…an entire song? Hmmm…not sure about that. Yep, that concert number that opens the movie, we get stuck with the ENTIRE SONG being belted out before ‘Ellen’ is whisked off-stage by the Green Goblin and his cronies.
–Yikes! Willem! Willem Dafoe (Platoon) is lucky he can act as, and I don’t mean to be an asshole here, he makes an ugly bastard with very little help. Here, that homeliness serves him well and helps make the villainous ‘Raven’ almost reptilian in appearance.
–Paxton! My man! I will NEVER have a problem when the late, great Bill Paxton (Aliens) turns up on screen, as he does here as a semi-dorky bartender named ‘Clyde’. Not a big role, but a noticeable one.
–Woah! Brutal. Stunts look painful. This is where I started being caught off guard. There are fights and motorcycle stunts that legitimately look like they could’ve sent people to the hospital and it was pretty great, I will admit.
–Weird tone, harsh but campy. It didn’t take long to start seeing some confusion in the tone. At one moment, the violence and action are strangely hardcore but then, in the span of an edit, silly campiness ensues. Kinda weird.
–Liking the neon. Neon ALWAYS looks great on film and this was no different, especially given just how much was used.
–Bitch slap! Cartoonish greasers. Within mere minutes of ‘Tom’ being back in town, he has a run in with a gang of moronic greaser gang members in his sister’s diner and he proceeds to hilariously slap the taste out of the leader’s mouth, before sending them all packing and stealing their car. I actually LOL’d.
–Juv.Del? Michael Pare’?! There was a line by one of the cop characters in which ‘Tom’ is referred to as a juvenile delinquent. Are you kidding me?! Dude was CLEARLY in his mid-to-late 20’s at the time. Once again…LOL’d.
–Crazy ass pomp, Paxton! For the entirety of his role, Bill rocks the most ridiculous pompadour and it’s great!
–Madigan lays Hudson out! Amy Madigan (The Dark Half) plays an ex-soldier / mechanic who is strongly hinted to ‘like’ the women-folk, and after she takes some unnecessary shit from Paxton, she suddenly lays him out with a quick punch to the jaw in her first scene.
–Gritty film noir. I like! Again, the style is solid, it’s just too bad the story and some of the acting is sub-par. Had the same presentation been slathered on a more deserving narrative, we could’ve gotten somewhere.
–Ry Cooder + Walter Hill = Near perfection. Musician turned Composer Ry Cooder is Walter Hill’s go-to guy for film scores and again, their collaboration does not disappoint.
–OK. Leather bar villains. Sure. This threw me off. At first it really did seem like the Bomber bike gang (Dafoe’s homies) were being presented as a whole slew of gay leather dudes, especially given how twink-like a featured bar dancer in their hang-out was. So, color me really surprised when said dancer, who I swore was a dude in drag, turns out to be female, who just happens to be a total loss in the breast and face department. Unnervingly masculine.
–Dafoe, you creepy fuck! Says it right there. This was scribbled in response to ‘Raven’ getting a little too up close and personal with his superstar prisoner, ‘Ellen’.
–Love the look! Once again, the style seems to be working for me.
–Sin City vibe in the dialogue. They definitely embrace a hard-boiled, comic booky feel (similar to Hill’s revamped Directors Cut of 1979’s The Warriors) and that is very apparent in the stilted, tough-guy dialogue (and the stylized ‘wipe’ scene transitions), which had me thinking back to Frank Miller’s notorious graphic novel / film series. Only there, it was done well.
–Pretty sure his hearing is fucked now. At one point, ‘Tom’, as he’s scoping out the Bomber’s hangout, has an industrial steam whistle go off right next to his head. Fairly certain those things are loud as hell and that his hearing would be messed right up. But…nope.
–So rapey! More sexual assault vibes, which can’t help but to shock a bit when viewed through the prism of 2021 sensibilities.
–Damn! Stunts = dangerous shit. Apparently more dangerous stunts break out.
–Pare’, rather expressionless. Not all of his dialogue is great. In my humble opinion, Michael Pare’ (The Philadelphia Experiment) has never been a solid actor. Sure, he’s got some rugged good looks but he’s got all the emotional range of a 2×4. His expression never seems to change, locked permanently on a slightly constipated scowl. His line readings also lack anything resembling spark.
–Diane Lane – One of the most gorgeous women to ever grace the Silver Screen. I’ve praised this lady before (outside of this review) and I stand by it. Stunning woman, especially in her 20’s, who has bucked the ravages of age and STILL looks amazing to this day.
–Moranis is a dick! It doesn’t take long for Rick Moranis’ slimy manager character to become an obnoxious asshole, which is incidentally what Michael Pare’ has since admitted to thinking about Moranis himself while they were on-set together, as Pare didn’t dig Moranis’ constant barrage of ‘insult humor’, both before and behind the cameras.
–Part Western, Part 50’s. All 80’s. That right there sums up the aesthetic and the atmosphere.
–No real character arcs. This became apparent in the 3rd Act, when I realized that not one character seems to experience any real change as a result of how the story plays out. They are virtually all the same as they were in the first two preceding acts. Another example of style over substance, an area where Streets of Fire excels.
–WTF?! He decked Diane! Hard! This caught me off-guard…again. We get a scene on a train where ‘Tom’ needs to break off from ‘Ellen’ and the crew (post rescue) to go and fight ‘Raven’, but after she insists on following, he denies her the chance by FUCKING PUNCHING HER IN THE FACE! Seriously, it’s no light-hearted smackeroo that makes her gently fall asleep either…he full-on, closed fisted decks her in the jaw, instantly dropping her beautiful ass directly to the ground, knocked senseless. I seriously didn’t know how I was supposed to take it. Was I supposed to laugh, or something? Because I sure didn’t!
–Moranis goes down. Thank you! Finally, someone puts a fist into Rick Moranis’ smug, nerdy face. I definitely laughed at that one.
–What the hell is this movie?! Several times, this question shot through my mind.
–Really? Another full tune?! Yep, we get another full-length ‘Ellen Aim’ special, in its entirety, as things are wrapping up. Seemed gratuitous, just like the one that opened the flick.
–Right back to the rapid-fire edits that opened the flick. And along with the full concert track bookend, we get the hyper-quick edits back to go with it.
–Cool final credits track – Deeper and Deeper, by The Fixx. Now this was a surprising find. I’d never heard this track before and as it played out over the final credits, I found myself loving it (listened to it six times now since the movie ended). So, if nothing else, I can thank Streets of Fire for that happy little discovery.
And that was Streets of Fire.
In a nutshell, I can now say that I’ve FINALLY gotten around to seeing this weird esoteric bomb from 1984 ($8 million box office vs $14 million budget = ouch), that somehow still gets talked about to this day (I guess that’s a good thing?) and now, I don’t ever have to watch it again.
Which isn’t to say that it’s awful…it’s not, but it also just isn’t all that good. I like what they were attempting with the strange world-building, but the lack-luster story (that even the producers knew sucked) and some of the robotic acting did what it could to effectively poke lethal holes in the overall final product. On a positive note, the whole flick LOOKS great, all drenched in neon and grit, with Hill firing on all cylinders visually but that’s about it. The story is lifeless and unengaging, the attempted hard-boiled dialogue and characterizations mostly suck and the tone is all over the place. Pare’ was a piss-poor choice as a lead (so boring), but Lane, Dafoe, Madigan and Paxton all brought some energy to their over-the-top characters and they did what they could with what they had.
So, yeah. Streets of Fire is a movie that got made once 37 years ago and is out there now for you to discover, should you choose to check it out and make up your own mind about it.
At least I got that surprisingly cool track by The Fixx out of it!