“I’ve been a soldier, ’til I ran out of wars.”
Streets of Fire is a burst of pure cinematic energy: youthful abandon, old-fashioned iconography and rock-n-roll chaos tossed into a single stylish package. The plot is a clothesline for cool moments, and the characters are pretty basic types: the Good, the Bad, the Hip and the Square. When director/co-writer Walter Hill and co-writer Larry Gross began working on the script, they each saw the movie as an opportunity to fulfill specific fetishes. Hill wanted to make a movie containing all of the cinematic elements he most loved as a teenager: “Kissing in the rain, neon, trains in the night, high-speed pursuit, rumbles, rock stars, motorcycles, jokes in tough situations, leather jackets and questions of honor.” For his part, Gross wanted to make a comic book movie that wasn’t based on a comic book (“I don’t like any of the comic books I’ve read, so I want it to be an original character.”). Suffice it to say the two goals align quite nicely.
The tale is set in “another time, another place,” but it looks an awful lot like a seedy version of the 1950s with bits and pieces of the 1980s sprinkled on top. The story begins with the psychopathic Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe, Spider-Man) – leader of a biker gang known as The Bombers – kidnapping beloved rock star Ellen Aim (Diane Lane, Rumble Fish). Ellen’s manager (and boyfriend) Billy Fish (Rick Moranis, Little Shop of Horrors) hires ex-soldier Tom Cody (Michael Pare, Eddie and the Cruisers) to retrieve Ellen, and Tom hires the steely mechanic McCoy (Amy Madigan, Carnivale) as his accomplice/driver.
The basic structure of the tale is exceptionally simple: bad guy kidnaps girl, good guy rescues girl, bad guy and good guy face off. You won’t be surprised by how the whole thing wraps up, but it’s the musical and aesthetic seasoning Hill explores along the way that makes the ride so much fun. It’s a film where the vibe feels more important than any of the characters, and the film is at its most purely enjoyable when it abandons the story altogether and dives headfirst into a slick presentation of one of its musical numbers.
Speaking of which: the film boasts a killer soundtrack, highlighted by thrilling opening and closing numbers penned by Jim Steinman (the title comes from a Bruce Springsteen tune, but Springsteen refused to allow the filmmakers to use the number after learning that they wouldn’t be using his version of of it) and a pair of entertaining rockabilly numbers performed by The Blasters. The score is penned by Ry Cooder, whose twangy guitars add yet another unexpected, intriguing shade to the film’s colorful tonal blend.
Alas, when the music fades away, so does much of the film’s impact: the characters are so thin and the writing so deliberately artificial that the film’s more plot/dialogue-driven scenes too often feel like filler. The actors do their best to make the material work, and some of them succeed (Willem Dafoe simply radiates sneering menace, and Amy Madigan’s does a fine job of handling her tough-gal banter). However, characters like Pare’s brutish protagonist and Moranis’ uptight business manager struggle to generate interest when they’re asked to be more than a visual representation of a specific type (the former is a particularly dull hero, never quite as badass or as nasty as the film seems to want him to be).
Still, the clumsier scenes aren’t the ones that stick with you when the film concludes. More often than not, Streets of Fire achieves the sort of giddy rock-n-roll euphoria it’s clearly aiming for. It’s rough around the edges, to be sure, but that only adds to its volatile charm: it feels as if the filmmakers are flinging stuff at the screen while dancing to the beat.
Streets of Fire (Blu-ray) receives a solid 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. It’s not flawless – there are occasional flecks, specks and scratches here and there – but the grain structure is impressively even, colors are robust, darker scenes benefit from strong shading and detail is exceptional. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is even better, delivering a surprisingly rousing and immersive experience for a film that is more than three decades old. Music sound robust throughout, and sound design is well-defined throughout. Supplements are impressive: a new 100-minute documentary on the making of the film, another 82-minute making-of doc from the previous home video release of the film, a quintet of five very short vintage EPK featurettes, more EPK promos, music videos, a trailer and a still gallery.
Streets of Fire is a bit messy, but it’s the sort of mess that could only have been made by a passionate artist with a distinctive vision. At its best, it’s a gas. Recommended.