Streets of Fire Review

Reportedly costing $14.5 million, Streets of Fire was released in 1984 to an unreceptive audience and critics who appeared to unanimously dislike it. The film flopped at the box office and subsequent video sales did little to reverse this trend. Nevertheless the film continues to have a strong cult following and some critics have begun to look more favourably upon this rather strange Walter Hill musical/action picture.

The film opens with a large concert scene, with a packed venue of screaming fans and pounding drums. Onto the stage runs Ellen Aims (Diane Lane), who belts out an 80s take on 50s rock ‘n’ roll with a song called ‘Nowhere Fast’. Despite Diane Lane being a singer she was, rather surprisingly, actually dubbed for the singing parts. As the crowd cheer ‘Ellen Aims and The Attackers’, a bike gang known as The Bombers rush the stage, kidnapping Ellen and causing a riot. The gang is ledby Raven (Willem Dafoe), who drags Ellen back to his club on the ‘rough side’ of town, The Battery. At the concert is Reva Cody who sends a telegram her brother, and ex-boyfriend of Ellen, Tom Cody (Michael Paré) asking him to come home.

Tom Cody is a soldier of fortune and excepts $10000 from Ellen’s manager and boyfriend Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) to rescue Ellen from The Bombers. Helping him out is fellow ex-soldier McCoy (Amy Madigan) who Tom meets in a bar and offers his sofa to. Tom, Reva and Billy set out into The Battery, storming the club, rescuing Ellen and blowing up a lot of The Bomber’s bikes in the process. As Tom leaves  Raven walks out into the road to stand off against him but without a weapon retreats back into the darkness with the obvious intent to pick this fight up again.

There’s not much else to the bulk of the story really and it is this simplicity that troubled a lot of critics at the time of it’s release. In 1984 this was a pretty big budget production and therefore was intended as a blockbuster but what Streets of Fire actually feels like is a really expensive B Movie genre picture. As an exploitative B-movie, Streets of Fire is fantastic, with the requisite amount of shootouts, hard boiled dialogue, fast cars and beautiful women. The visual style is also petty stunning with particularly impressive set dressing and lighting. The film was shot entirely on a backlot with a huge tarpaulin covering the entire set, so that night scenes could be shot during the day. The film is almost entirely comprised of night scenes and the only light seems to be neon lights and headlights, adding to the beautiful neo-noir cityscape.

An obvious comparison to Streets of Fire is of course Blade Runner, but where Blade Runner extrapolated a near future bathed in neon, Streets of Fire is set in “Another time, another place…” in which it is both the 80s and the 50s at the same time. Walter Hill has said that he wanted to make the film that he wanted to see when he was a teenager and in this I am sure he succeeded. It is worth noting that Walter hill was 16 in 1956 and it is this time that he returns to, whilst at the same time trying to invoke a modern day setting.  With characters plucked out of the world of John Ford westerns and 80s exploitation, musical numbers, high explosive action sequences and neo-noir lighting, Streets of Fire is in many ways a marvellous slice of post-modernist filmmaking which was perhaps made at the wrong time. With the success of the “video store generation of filmmakers” (as described by Variety), such as Quentin Tarantino, I believe there is a larger audience for films like Streets of Fire and if made today I think it could have been quite a success.

Having said that there are some obvious problems with the film. Although the simplicity of the plot fits the tone of the film, it is incredibly lightweight and the film therefore relies heavily on the visuals in order to hold the viewers attention. The film also suffers from casual misogyny, in particular from Tom Cody. This is unfortunate but if viewed as character flaws rather than something to be celebrated it too suits the grimy hard boiled nature of the film. Coupled with the minimalist plot is the simplistic dialogue, often lines are spat out phrases rather than full conversations. This does admittedly again fit with the general tone of the film but at times grates and is exacerbated by the the stilted and somewhat wooden acting from the main cast. The only exceptions to this are Willem Dafoe as the exaggerated villain and, surprisingly Rick Moranis, although Bill Paxton is also amusing in his minor role as a barman.

The song that opens the film has the lines “There’s nothin’ wrong with goin’ nowhere baby. But we should be goin’ nowhere fast”. This is the film in a nutshell and the sentiment mirrors the intentions of Hill and the sensibility of the teenage version of himself that he was attempting to engage with.

With its striking lighting and impressive production design it’s easy to be immersed in the sumptuous visuals. Throw in the pounding soundtrack and it’s hard not to get swept up in this action packed film, forgetting its minor but multiple imperfections.