I’m willing to lay odds that most of you reading this have never heard of Walter Hill, despite the fact that his involvement in the Alien series as a producer was pivotal to its success. Walter Hill essentially created the buddy-cop genre of film with 48 Hrs. and immortalized the words, “Warriors, come out and play-ay!” in the movie The Warriors. For all of that, Hill is pretty much a cult figure that only film buffs of a certain type love. I, for example, think his 1987 movie, Extreme Prejudice, is one of the very best crime/action films ever made. The fact that it’s never gotten so much as a widescreen DVD release is a damned shame that cries out for rectifying.
Anyway, Walter Hill may not have made a tremendous name for himself in the United States despite his contributions to film, but that never stopped him from making good movies, even if they were the sort of pictures the average moviegoer could not get his or her head around. A perfect example of what I mean: Streets of Fire.
Released in 1984, Streets of Fire was a total bomb. Audiences stayed away in droves. Why? Probably because, and I say this as a fan of the movie, because Streets of Fire is a weird film. It’s billed as a “rock and roll fable,” whatever that means, and it presents a filmic universe that is at once totally fascinating and also slightly alienating. I’ll try to explain.
Actually, the best thing for you to do is see the movie. It’s only a hair over 90 minutes and it flies by in a heartbeat. At least consider renting it. The movie deserves better than the 1,000 words I’m going to give it here, largely because simple text on a screen cannot convey the look and feel of this unique picture. I can’t guarantee you’re going to like Streets of Fire, but I suspect you’ll at least come away from it feeling like you’ve had an experience, which is at least something.
Streets of Fire takes place in a world that is informed by our own, but is not of any particular time. Styles of the ’40s, ’50s and ’80s all commingle in this setting, and when I said earlier that the movie can be alienating, it’s this unusual hybrid that’s always at least a few degrees off-kilter that leaves you feeling like you’re missing something. In some cases it can turn a viewer off the film altogether, which is unfortunate, but I acknowledge that it’s a possibility.
The action in Streets of Fire is all contained in a city that’s a little New York, a little Chicago and all fantasy. From the architecture to the cars, that stylistic blend is represented top to bottom. We can assume the action takes place in the United States, but it’s no United States we’ve ever heard of. It’s kind of like someone flipped a switch at the end of the ’50s and only turned it back on again when the ’80s rolled around. As predicted, I can’t really put this across to you in words. You really have to see it for yourself.
Into this strange, and yet strangely familiar, world comes Cody (Michael Paré), a young man with a checkered past who fled his neighborhood, his sister and his best girl, Ellen (Diane Lane), to join the military and (maybe) fight in some nameless war. Cody’s sister (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), has managed to go into business for herself with a small diner. Ellen took a little singing career and turned it into something big. She’s a star now and for one night only she’s playing the old neighborhood. Or at least that’s how it’s meant to go. A throwback-styled biker gang called the Bombers, led by an absolutely bloodless Willem Dafoe, swoops in and abducts Ellen for nefarious purposes. Cody’s sister sends a letter begging Cody to come home and help. He does.
There’s something almost western-ish about this set-up, which is unsurprising given Walter Hill’s fondness for the genre. Cody is the cooly calculating gunslinger who sells his services to Ellen’s agent and agrees to face an entire gang more or less by himself. The Bombers are purely bad apples, dressed in black and ruling their skeezy section of the city like feudal lords. As mentioned, Willem Dafoe looks like some kind of ’50s/punk vampire in rubber and leather and I honestly wonder how long he stayed away from the sun to get the milky, almost corpse-like complexion he sports in the movie.
Streets of Fire is PG, so there’s no bloodletting. This really isn’t that kind of movie anyway. This is a film where good guy and bad guy meet in the middle of the street to fight it out with pickaxes after stripping off their shirts. This is a movie where explosions never kill anyone and bullets can fly without consequence. Really, by the time the action gets going in Streets of Fire you’re either on board with this sort of storytelling or you’re not. There is no in-between with this picture, which is why I think so many people say bad things about it.
Whatever you may have heard about Streets of Fire over the past 30 years, I assure you it’s not as bad as all that. Yes, it’s a strange film. No, it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen nor will see again. Yes, it’s hard-boiled. No, it’s not meant to be taken seriously. When the film is bookended by a couple of operatic Jim Steinman songs, including one of my favorites, “Tonight is What it Means to be Young,” you have to know this is meant to be pure entertainment and nothing else.
Interestingly enough, Streets of Fire did gain a huge following… in Japan. The retro stylings of the movie permeated Japanese pop culture for decades. Clearly they saw what audiences in America did not. I won’t go so far as to say Streets of Fire is a great film or even a classic, but it’s something that ought to be seen and appreciated. You will have a good time.