Following the success of 48 Hours in 1982, director Walter Hill was more or less allowed to write his own checks. Unfortunately, the runaway success was followed up with a devastating flop. Streets of Fire was poised to be the big summer movie of 1984 and was, unfortunately, scooped by a movie about ghosts and the men who bust them. Nothing against Ghostbusters, of course. Streets’ biggest flaw is that it can’t quite make up its mind about what kind of movie it wants to be. At its heart it’s an action movie but there are also elements of comedies and musicals and the genres don’t always blend.
I’m a big fan of Walter Hill, though, and I can see where he was trying to go with this movie and can appreciate it for all its flaws. It’s certainly colorful, the setting is a series of anachronisms that make it hard to pin down as to what time this movie is set in. Many of the characters seem like the sort of people you would have found in a teens gone wild type movie from the 50’s, drawing a lot of influence and style from Rebel Without A Cause, but the music, which plays an integral role in the movie is distinctly 80’s. At times you get the feeling that this was the movie Hill would have made when he made The Warriors.
Streets of Fire begins with Ellen Aim, a girl from the bad neighborhood known as The Richmond, coming back to town for a show with her band The Attackers. We’re treated to an epic pop song written by Meatloaf’s writer, Jim Steinman, before a gang from The Battery, led by Willem Dafoe, shows up and kidnaps Ellen with the intent of making her his girl. Enter Tom Cody, a tough guy from the neighborhood who had been away in the army for a while. Cody and Ellen go way back and after agreeing to take $10,000 from Ellen’s manager and now boyfriend, played by Rick Moranis, he descends into the Battery to rescue Ellen with a tag along military mechanic he met in a bar. Action ensues and Cody manages to free Ellen but now they’re faced with the prospect of having to fight their way out of The Battery, back to The Richmond.
Streets of Fire is decked out with a lot of elaborately staged action scenes and imagery torn right out of a comic book. It certainly succeeds on this level but it slips with the cast. Hill was a fan of casting relative unknowns and while Diane Lane, who plays Ellen Aim, already had a bunch of movies under her belt, Michael Pare, who plays Tom Cody is just wooden. For a pair with a volatile romatic past, they have zero chemistry, which probably explains why they’re not together anymore. It’s also difficult to believe that Ellen would have gone from such a fiery romance into the arms of her weasly manager, played by Rick Moranis. Moranis may have been pigeonholed as the nerdy type that he’s best known for playing but he does a lot of tough talking here that comes across very awkward, as does a lot of the dialog. While the movie isn’t bursting with action the entire time, the character building scenes play a bigger role than in most b-movies and this is where it falls flat. Dafoe, on the other hand, keeps the quieter moments of the movie rolling with his natural menace. He’s a weird looking guy and the perfect villain here. His motivations for kidnapping Ellen are shaky at best, but he’s got a lot of great lines on his side and his gang, The Bombers, are a mean bunch that also feature Fear singer, Lee Ving, in a minor role. I’m always happy to see Lee show up in movies. Even if he’s just sneering in the background
For all its flaws, Streets of Fire has a very strange, colorful setting and great music on its side to keep you distracted. To illustrate the hero/villain status of its characters, the music plays a big role in defining who is who. On the side of Ellen and Tom is Fire, Inc. which was the group fronted by Meatloaf’s backup singer and all the music for their scenes seems like unused tracks from Bat Out Of Hell. The two main songs, Nowhere Fast and Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young have that operatic pop sound that makes Jim Steinman so immediately identifiable. It’s cheesy, even for 80’s standards, but the melodrama is so thick that you have to smile. On the side of the bad gang, The Bombers, is Dave Alvin and The Blasters and their neo-rockabilly style, illustrated in a live performance of One Bad Stud that will leave you wondering if the dancer in the Bomber’s hangout is a woman or a very effeminate man in fishnet bodystocking (in truth, it was Jennifer Beale’s dance double from Flashdance). Also, along the way, Cody and company run across a Doo Wop group looking to get across town to a show but despite their early 60’s get up, they wind up performing I Can Dream About You by Dan Hartman, the only hit to come out of this movie.
Ultimately, the strange mashup of The Wild Bunch/Rebel Without A Cause, music video presentation and sensibilities established in early 80’s music movies like Flashdance and Footloose comes across as a movie that had heart but no chance in hell against other, more conventional movies during the summer of 1984. It’s a great idea and tons of fun and the things that turned off critics and audiences back then are immediately appealing to fans of cult. Because of its relative obscurity, I always try to turn people on to this movie. Streets of Fire is a great time for everyone as long as you know what you’re getting into.