Movie review: “Streets of Fire” (1984)

Streets of Fire

“I’m not paying you to add any thrills to my life, Cody. That’s not how this works.”

Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire wields its appellation “A Rock & Roll Fable” with a heavy emphasis on “fable” in the mythic or legendary sense of the word, almost as a hedge against having to explain why, despite outward appearances (of, it must be said, unflagging prettiness), it is not populated by recognizable human beings. The “Rock & Roll” part is also important, insofar as the characters in Streets of Fire, a gaggle of ineffectual tough guys, gun molls, and collateral damage otherwise, only ever seem at all comfortable expressing their feelings when either singing, playing, or listening to live music. On that score, I can relate. A gritty, visually arresting street opera minus approximately 60% of the necessary attendant emotion, the movie is yet another flawed yet beloved artifact of my youth that I have struggled to fully embrace as an adult, in large part because its unassuming strengths and glaring weaknesses are so clearly at war with each other. Gruff men of action are director Hill’s stock and trade, of course. Films like 48 Hours, The Warriors, and Southern Comfort found cult success largely on the strength of his style over appreciable substance and attitude above all. Since style and attitude are all Streets of Fire really offers, along with one of the great, underrated soundtracks of the 1980s, it’s fortunate indeed that a competent captain – one with a short memory for mistakes and moxy to spare – is at the helm.

Streets of Fire Poster“Another time, another place…” announces an appropriately cryptic title card before the first of the film’s trademark jagged transitional wipes (think Star Wars but less geometric or whimsical) deposits the viewer into “The Richmond”, a rough patch of neon and rain-soaked asphalt situated at the intersection of Art Deco and 1950s Greaser culture and sheltered beneath omnipresent steel girders that uphold what must be an impressively complex elevated train system. The Richmond is a lower-middle class burgh bereft of actual single-family housing, basically an assemblage of nondescript four-story buildings jammed together into uncomfortable close quarters, its streets populated at any given time by squalls of conspicuously cinematic rain (despite the expansive steel canopy that looms above) or throngs of people either flocking toward or fleeing from the local concert hall. That venue’s elegant marquee proclaims the long-awaited return to town of rock band “Ellen Aim and The Attackers”. Ry Cooder’s rumbling slide guitar-driven title theme soon gives way to The Attackers onstage, springing out of the professionally lit shadows in natty suits and bounding their way through insistent opening number “Nowhere Fast” as local girl done good Aim (Diane Lane) seizes the spotlight like a satin and leather-clad mixture of Pat Benatar and Marilyn Monroe. Young, fiery, and gorgeous, she is every inch a star. Flanked by henchmen and obscured by darkness, a tall, stoic biker with impressive hair watches her performance intently, within yet set apart from the rapt greater audience. It turns out he is waiting for the right moment to strike.

In the aftermath of Ellen Aim’s triumphant return to her hometown stage, chaos descends on The Richmond. As it turns out, the infamous Bombers Motorcycle Gang, led by aforementioned music aficionado Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe), crashed The Attackers’ show in order to beat up bystanders and destroy property, finally absconding with their frontwoman and stealing away to their own adjacent personal domain, demilitarized slumland “The Battery”.* Enter Tom Cody, infamous hellraiser turned out-of-work print ad cologne model, who arrives in The Richmond at his sister’s behest to rescue old flame Ellen Aim from Shaddock’s nefarious clutches. Cody as a character is the quintessential Eastwoodian silent man of action taken to an almost ludicrous extreme, and walking proof that people will forgive any and all manner of personal dullness if you just have the good fortune to look like Michael Pare (or Diane Lane, for that matter). Cody does look fabulous riding the elevated train into town – eyes trained on an off-camera horizon, overnight bag slung across his shoulder like a samurai sword – or rousting a pack of overmatched but color-coordinated hoodlums through the front window of his sister’s diner, or, hell, even nursing a tequila shot alone at a seedy local bar. The issues only ever start when he opens his mouth, so director Hill wisely keeps his verbal output to a bare minimum. This is a problem in itself, though, since the brooding white knight in distressed leather is the fulcrum on which Streets of Fire turns, and Pare has all the applied dramatic range of a meatball sub.

*The two-hour drive separating The Battery from The Richmond will improbably become a padding, principal plot concern in the film’s middling middle third. If, as a contrarian, you already think that sounds kind of riveting, oh, just you brace yourself.

Streets of Fire works best at its beginning, when the heady confluence of music and mood effectively conceals from viewers just what the hell is going on, and, especially, at its end, when, their mission accomplished, its characters let their exasperating tough guy personas slip enough to finally get busy living in the moment. In between those points, it is a violently mixed bag. If Streets of Fire was a straight concert document, it’d be among the best in film history. As a final project in a first-year screenwriting class, its shooting script, by Hill and collaborator Larry Gross, would likely be enough to torpedo the entire semester, if not get the authors tossed out of school altogether. Somewhere along the line, Hill, already a master of updating classic Western archetypes for modern use, happened upon the great idea of cross-pollinating ‘40s Film Noir with the then-burgeoning glossy music video culture of MTV. In so doing, he would here expertly fuse two of the most recognizable and visually rich aesthetics in cinema into something both strangely plausible and at times even more striking. In researching and internalizing the foundational patter of noir classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, however, it seems clear the filmmakers paid more attention to dialogue cadence and temperature than its actual nutritional content. As an unfortunate result, most everyone in Streets of Fire communicates in clipped, Cro-Magnon outbursts, like obnoxiously blustery ten-year-olds playing gangster. Consider this early exchange between Cody and unemployed ex-soldier McCoy (Amy Madigan, doing what she can), whose chance encounter as fellow barstool-occupying hardasses leads in a roundabout way to her crashing on Cody’s sister’s couch rather than in the no doubt renowned cocksman’s own bed:

“You always walk around carrying?”

“Like I said, I’m a soldier.”

“Well, don’t go pointing that gun at me. I wouldn’t like it.”

“I don’t point it unless I’m going to use it.”

“Yeah, right.” (end scene)

A little of this goes a long way, of course, but dialogue troubles remain the film’s tiresome throughline even as the underlying action ebbs and flows, washing away not only decorative deck furniture like Pare but also swamping more accomplished hands like Madigan, Dafoe – albeit in early roles – and a seeming ingenue like Lane, who despite her tender age of eighteen, was already a seasoned Broadway vet. Name a movie other than Streets of Fire that succeeded in making Rick Moranis (Ghostbusters, Honey I Shrunk the Kid) the least bit unlikeable, for heaven’s sake. As Aim’s manager and ostensible current love interest, Moranis’ Billy Fish, a conspicuously antagonistic 98-lb. weakling wielding a problem-solving bankroll and a serious Napoleon complex, is backed into a hopeless corner the moment he signs on to accompany Cody and McCoy into the heart of The Battery to rescue her. See, Ellen and Cody have chemistry, man, and history too, rendering Fish a combination placeholder and third wheel, a belligerent wet blanket on a locked trajectory straight to the heart of Cuckold City. Strange that the most/only sympathetic character in a lineup of otherwise emaciated tropes should counterintuitively be written as its most baldly annoying. Moranis seems to sense the insecure dude concealed beneath Fish’s ceaseless bluster and breaks through the screenplay haze here and there to impose some genuine human emotion on the proceedings (“She needs me, but she loves you…”). The performances are all so of a piece here though that quality can be difficult to discern even as it stares you in the face.**

**Dormant but abiding, so foregone a conclusion is Aim’s lingering love for Cody, and vice versa, that the film shoehorns a fairly nonsensical dramatic contrivance intended to separate their electro-magnetic lips just long enough to enable a more torrid reconciliation (in the rain) once the threat from Raven, The Bombers, and this anemic lover’s spat has finally blown over.  

Luckily, Hill has the gunslinger’s instincts and good sense to shut his cast up and just let them work when the action warrants it, depositing the viewer into not one but two tornadic, small-scale riots – the first in the aftermath of the initial attack on The Richmond, and another dovetailing out of the central mission to infiltrate seedy biker warehouse Torchie’s, where Aim is being held – as well as into a crucible of Bombers and gun-brandishing civilians bearing witness to the climactic battle, mano a mano plus some surprise accoutrements, between Cody and Raven. Even when its action drags in the middle, Streets of Fire is never less than stellar to look at thanks to John Vallone’s evocative production design, and its earthy Ry Cooder score, augmented with contributions from ace producer not-yet-turned record mogul Jimmy Iovine, would be a bluesy pleasure cruise even without the addition of impeccably crafted, admittedly overheated soundtrack ringers like the late Dan Hartman’s immortal R&B sonata “I Can Dream About You”, and the two songs Ellen Aim “plays” in concert, propulsive opener “Nowhere Fast” and the epic, foundation-shaking power ballad “Tonight Is What It Means to be Young”. Interestingly, it is on stage where Streets of Fire is at its most consistently visceral and infectious. Hill was already an established b-movie action auteur when he began to conceptualize and reconfigure how concert footage might be shot and assembled to truly stand apart from a congested landscape. One pictures him a lifelong music fan giddy to impart his stamp, not a million miles removed from how Scorsese might’ve approached The Last Waltz, or, decades later, Shine A Light, or, though comparatively undervalued, from what the late Jonathan Demme accomplished that same year of 1984 with Stop Making Sense.

The image of Aim and her backing band The Attackers on stage, lip sync stampeding their way through the rugged, breathless terrain of “Tonight is What It Means to be Young”, will always be my overwhelming memory of Streets of Fire, and it’s fairly obvious that was Hill’s intention all along. Through all the highs and the lows, everything builds to this. The sequence, which begins with Aim taking the stage in a clingy, backless, shoulda-been-iconic red satin dress and already waist deep in emotional turmoil, and Cody, framed by a highly symbolic exit door, watching her performance from the back of the sold out room, pulls out all the visual stops, utilizing in the process many of the same tricks and techniques popularized later that summer by Albert Magnoli in Purple Rain. Magnoli, of course, had an unbeatable advantage in Prince, inarguably among the most magnetic stage presences in modern music history, but Hill still goes all out to create an unforgettable finale. The camera feels embedded within the buzzing crowd like a war correspondent taking fire, and, awash in cascading light and living shadow, afloat in a writhing sea of outstretched arms, recognizes no meaningful boundary between the stage and beyond. “Tonight” is the song “Purple Rain” in M.O., distilled, double-time, and shot from a cannon – cheesy, stirring, yearning, swirling, bracing – all payoff with only a modicum of the proper build-up. It is, frankly, one of my favorite things ever, so much so that, even though I’ve surely seen Streets of Fire a dozen times in the years since first encountering it as an HBO-addled child, I’ve watched this final scene, by conservative estimate, at least five times that, probably more.

Forced reevaluations of the films of our youth are far from a guaranteed blissful jaunt down memory lane. I’ve spent my life so in love with the final ten minutes of Streets of Fire that I routinely paid little to no attention to the moments where it was a jumbled mess. That’s why fast-forward was invented, after all. But the appellation “fable”, mentioned above, does hold some illuminating importance to any sober, holistic, theoretically unbiased, assessment, in that, properly accounted for, it simultaneously shuffles if not explains away an awful lot of awkwardness while imparting upon the elements that do work an aura of timelessness and even gravity. In the end, the pros do outnumber the cons somewhat comfortably. For a feature length music video, Streets of Fire remains one hell of an accomplished B-movie. Its characters may take themselves far too seriously, but that isn’t the larger movie’s problem. It’s too busy stuffing its world full of subtly remarkable sights and sounds. Lane makes for a luminous, defiant damsel, and Dafoe, despite a dearth of screen time, her appropriately slimy jailer. The Richmond and its surroundings become a singularly memorable backdrop for mayhem, infused by Hill’s trademark unfussy kineticism. There’s irony a-plenty in the idea that Streets of Fire occasionally plays better with the sound off – dialogue aside, it contains visual tableaux that would be at home anchoring a great silent film of the Twenties – because at its absolute best, it bleeds music like an erupting volcano, with “a touch that’s got the power to stun”. When that symbolic exit door is again finally empty, I’ve lately noticed Ellen’s reaction, over in a second but quietly devastating, before she goes on singing like her life depends on it. The look I’m referencing was lost on me as a little kid, but, like I said, it’s made a terrific impression on me of late…in all six repeated playbacks of that final number, during my single full, ahem, “refresher” screening of Streets of Fire.

“Streets of Fire” (1984) 3/4 stars

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