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Walter Hill’s 1984 “Streets of Fire” is probably the only other film, besides John Carpenter’s “Big Trouble in Little China”, that I have a hard time convincing third parties that it’s really not as bad as they think it is. Unlike the screwball comedy elements of “Little China”, there is none of the humor or tongue in cheek approach in “Streets”. In truth, “Streets of Fire” is a highly imaginative film that, unfortunately, is not terribly well written, acted, or directed. So why do I like it so much?
The one thing you’ll notice first is how anachronistic “Streets of Fire” is. Billed as a “Rock and Roll Fable”, the movie exists in a time bubble of its own making. People sport pompadours and biker gangs roam the streets without much interference from the law. The closest possible era for the film would be the ’50s or ’60s, which may explain the vintage trains, cars, and clothing, but not much else. For instance, race relations are euphoric in the film, and there seems to be no distinction between black and white.
The film takes place mostly at night, and maybe that’s for the best because with too much light the audience might spend too much time wondering about the movie’s timeline rather than pay attention to what’s happening onscreen. And it is the film’s groovy scene transitions and vibrant look that is the real star of this picture, not its then unknown cast and weak script.
Michael Pare, long before he became mired in B-Movie hell, stars as Tom Cody, a rough and tumble mercenary looking for his next job. Cody is contacted by his older sister Reva after Cody’s ex-girlfriend and singing sensation Ellen Aim (a very young Diane Lane) is abducted off the stage by menacing biker Willem Dafoe. Cody is hesitant to launch the rescue operation because he’s still stinging from his past with Ellen, but eventually agrees. With Ellen’s manager and a female mercenary name McCoy (Amy Madigan), Cody heads into the bad part of town where the Bombers, a biker gang, had taken Ellen for their own amusement.
Movies don’t come any simpler than “Streets of Fire”, a film that has so little pretensions about being more than what it is that writers Larry Gross and Walter Hill didn’t even bother to actually write dialogue, but instead gave all the characters one-liners. I kid you not. There are no actual conversations or even exposition dialogue; instead, the movie is replete with what the writers no doubt thought were “cool” one-liners. Everyone, from Cody to McCoy to Billy Fish (Rick Moranis), Ellen’s manager, spouts short soundbytes in lieu of normal sentences.
There’s no getting around the fact that “Streets of Fire” has some of the most stilted acting, off-kilter dialogue delivery, and unbelievably dense characterization in the history of film. And yet, the film is such a guilty pleasure that it’s hard to be, well, too hard on it. I don’t even mind that lead Michael Pare seems to have broken his leg during the making of the movie, and there are scenes where he doesn’t walk more than he waddles to and fro like he’s (probably) wearing a cast on one leg. I don’t even care that Diane Lane (“Unfaithful”) barely has any dialogue, and that when her character did speak, her lines were just as bad as the others. I also didn’t mind that Diane is obviously lip-synching all of her music because, frankly, she looks so damn sexy onstage.
“Streets of Fire” is not a great film. It’s an average film, with an average cast, average story, and average direction. But when you put all of that together with the film’s anachronistic vibe, there’s just something so cool about the whole thing. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the film is bookended by two excellent in-concert sequences, with some great ’80s-inspired music for our enjoyment. The film’s soundtrack is also quite good, with a mixture of rockabilly and punk.
There is violence in the movie, but it’s all done so cartoonishly that you can’t take them seriously. Although the final confrontation been Cody and Raven (Dafoe), using some sort of weird ax/hammer, is quite brutal. If only Cody hadn’t waddled to the scene, that is.
You really can’t expect too much from “Streets of Fire”, because doing so will only guarantee disappointment. Yet there’s something to be said about a movie that takes place in a world that just doesn’t exist anywhere else besides on celluloid. If just for that, “Streets” will continue to have a place in my heart — even though I will never be able to fully explain why.
Walter Hill (director) / Larry Gross, Walter Hill (screenplay)
CAST: Michael Pare …. Tom Cody
Diane Lane …. Ellen Aim
Rick Moranis …. Billy Fish
Amy Madigan …. McCoy
Willem Dafoe …. Raven Shaddock