Streets of Fire

The two Michaels: Beck and Pare. These two guys were both pegged at the beginning of their respective careers as the next big thing. Both sported a brooding, introspective air of mystery and toughness much like James Dean. Beck swaggered into national consciousness in 1978, clad in a leather vest and bopping his way through one gang after another as he tried to lead his Warriors back to their home turf at Coney Island. A few years later, in 1984, Michael Pare burst onto the scene in similar fashion as the mysterious 1950s rocker Eddie, who may or may not have faked his own death to escape the harsh lights of fame. Both men turned heads, and critics were thinking that these were the guys who would be ruling the 1980s. And for a while, it looked like that just might be the case. Beck was quickly cast in a couple of big-budget starring vehicles. Unfortunately, those movies were Megaforce and Xanadu, and before Beck’s star had even ascended, those flops sent it crashing back down to earth. Michael Pare went from Eddie and the Cruisers straight into a couple big-budget disasters of his own: the acceptable but unspectacular sci-fi time travel film The Philadelphia Experiment and the impossible to categorize subject of this article, 1984’s Streets of Fire.

It was the end right at the beginning for both men through no real fault of their own. Plenty of guys had survived bad or misunderstood movies and gone on to rule the roost regardless. But not the Michaels. For some reason, their bombs pulled the men down into the shadowy nether regions of the movie making world and cleared the way for Arnold and Sly Stallone, who somehow managed to stay superstars despite Jingle All the Way and Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot. Beck found himself toiling in the Italian action exploitation market before settling in to a steady but uninspired career playing one-off characters on television shows. Pare followed suit and ended up in the domestic direct-to-video action and sci-fi film market. Both men were all but forgotten by the people who once heralded them as the next big thing.

Well, not entirely.

Both Michaels would have the last laugh, in a way. The Warriors proved to be an enduring cult phenomenon, culminating in a massive explosion of popularity around 2003-2006, which saw special edition DVDs, video games, and ugly action figures hit shelves. People who had never heard of the movie were suddenly rallying around it, and on all the promotional materials there was the visage of Michael Beck looking proud and defiant and kind of irritated. Michael Pare, on the other hand, became one of the biggest cult stars in Japan. His popularity continues to this day, and Streets of Fire is one of the most influential films for a huge number of modern Japanese film makers, especially those working within the realm of anime. But we’ll come to that in due time.

Both Streets of Fire and The Warriors have a lot in common. They present a highly-stylized, almost fairy-tale vision of an urban fantasy world (The Warriors explicitly using New York City; Streets of Fire using some combination of Chicago and Detroit). Both feature outlandish gangs with only the most tenuous reflection of anything a real gang might be like. Beck’s Swan and Pare’s Tom Cody are both similar men and are, like the bulk of the other characters in each film, more symbols than individuals. Both movies featured a lot of violence. And perhaps not coincidentally, both Streets of Fire and The Warriors were directed by Walter Hill.

Back in 1984, I saw Streets of Fire in the theater. There was no particular reason we went to see it; we were just looking for a movie, and it happened to be playing at the right time of day. I remember my reaction was that I had no real reaction. I neither liked nor hated the film, was neither bored nor excited by it. It was all just sort of weird, and a couple days later all I could remember about the movie was some ugly guy in overalls that looked like they were made of trash bags. Oh, and some guys in grey Commodores-style suits singing a pretty good song about moving sidewalks. Beyond that, the movie was a vast blank in my memory, and although I told people the movie was all right, I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was about. And so Streets of Fire passed from my conscience in much the same way it passed from the collective conscience of America as a whole. In general, people seemed to have tepidly complimentary things to say about the movie, but the general public couldn’t really make heads or tails of the thing. Before long, it was almost entirely forgotten. And so it stayed for me for some twenty-two or so years.

But starting in 2006, the name began popping up again, partially because I started listening to some podcasts about anime, and mentioning Streets of Fire was a running joke among many of them. Then I ran across the DVD and decided it was high time I got reacquainted with the movie. But from what I could remember, which was very little indeed, Streets of Fire was not a movie to be studied in the solitary confines of one’s den, a glass of fine vino nobile di Montepulciano sitting within easy reach. No, this was a different sort of movie. So I invited over friends and ordered a sixty-four count of mixed hot and BBQ wings, baked beans, and dinner rolls. This, I felt, was the only good and proper way to watch Streets of Fire.

The movie wastes no time letting you now exactly where you stand. Title cards announce that the film is set in “Another Time, Another Place,” which is my favorite time and place. Fist pounding rock ‘n’ roll spills over the soundtrack, and onto the stage steps Diane Lane as Ellen Aim, clad in a sexy red and black dress and bathed in splashed of red and blue neon. The song, “Nowhere Fast,” was written by Jim Steinman, who wrote songs for Meatloaf, so you know what to expect. He specializes in anthemic, bombastic, and dangerously catchy songs that seem to exist in some disjointed universe comprised of throwback fifties sensibilities mixed with theatrical seventies/eighties overkill. In short, there was probably no better man in the world at the time to pen the songs for Lane’s rocker songstress, because Streets of Fire exists in very much the same alternative universe. The clothes are a mix of fifties styles, only more so. Everything is slightly exaggerated, sort of like what you expect from a fifties themed stage show at an amusement park. The cityscapes are all back alleys and elevated train tracks (Hill scouted locations in Chicago, then recreated them in a more stylized fashion on sets), and no one has ever heard of a car that wasn’t a Studebaker.

At the same time, the fifties style is presented within a very eighties context. Everything is drenched in flashing neon. The stage performances boast a slick eighties look. And something about the fifties style seems more like the fifties as interpreted by an eighties retro band. Just as Walter Hill created a fantasy New York for The Warriors, so too doe she created this sort of mythical version of Chicago (though unlike The Warriors, where New York locations are central to the plot, Chicago serves as the stylistic influence for Streets of Fire but is never named as the actual location). Dealing as it does in broad Americana archetypes and symbols, it only takes this pre-credit sequence to grasp the context of the film. These images — the elevated train tracks, diners, Poodle skirts, pompadours, leather-clad biker gangs, Studebakers — are burned into our national psyche, and they are as integral and easily identifiable icons of American mythology as the cowboy.

Hill’s city is a composite of every image of “the city” that appeared in the noir films of the forties. The population is comprised entirely of poodle-skirted or pompadoured rock ‘n’ roll fans, cops, street gangs, and smart-aleck bartenders. It always seems like it’s nighttime, even during the daytime scenes. Although there are cops around, they don’t seem to have much power. Whole neighborhoods are controlled by street gangs, and no one seems to have much problem with a bunch of guys running around with shotguns. It’s also a city without racial divides. The Richmond — as close to a good neighborhood as this movie comes — seems to exist in a version of the fifties that didn’t suffer from segregation (shades of the multi-ethnic street gangs in The Warriors). Since Streets of Fire is all about American symbols and myths, this makes sense since we tend to see all that was cool about the era — the style, the music, the cars — without seeing what was bad — specifically, segregation. Streets of Fire is the fifties we wish we had — where Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream was a reality and people weren’t divided by race.

As Ellen Aim and the Attackers burn through the opening song, the movie cuts to scenes of an arriving biker gang. Doors are flung open, and the gang stands framed in blinding white light. As the song wraps, the gang storms the stage, kidnap Ellen, and punch Bill Paxton in the face. Would you do anything less than kidnap Diane Lane and punch Bill Paxton in the face? I didn’t think so. A riot breaks out. Police cars flip over, windows get smashed, and a dude gets dragged behind a motorcycle. All this before the credits even roll (or flash, as the case may be).

How you will react to the entire film can be ascertained by how you react to this pre-credit sequence. If the style immediately strikes you as corny or unbelievable, then you’re not going to click with the rest of the film, because like many films and shows of the eighties (I’m thinking primarily of Michael Mann productions here), the style is every bit as important to communicating the plot as the plot itself. Without the style, there would be no story here, at least not one worth watching. Without the look, this would be just another action movie. But the look is there, however, and that elevates it into the realm of a sort of pop-art fantasy film. For me, given my stylistic sensibilities and fondness for fifties rock ‘n’ roll, I have to say that I think this opening sequence is great, rivaling Hill’s previous “coolest intro ever,” which was the opening sequence in The Warriors of all the gangs traveling to Van Cortland Park up in the Bronx, accompanied by Barry DeVorzon’s bad-ass “Warriors Theme.” Structurally and stylistically, the intro of Streets of Fire is almost identical, right down to the importance of the opening song and the transition to the credits.

The action proper picks up during the credits, as former soldier Tom Cody (Michael Pare) shows up and beats the crap out of a bunch of punks in a diner. Michael Pare’s “blue work shirt with the sleeves ripped off” and suspenders look is equal parts goofy and tough, but like everything in this movie, it’s taking a style and extending it to right about the point where the illogical extreme begins, though nothing is as illogically extreme as Bill Paxton’s towering pompadour. Only Ronnie Spector’s hair could ever give it a run for its money. Within the first few minutes, we learn that Cody has been called back to town by his sister, Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh, from The Warriors), to rescue Ellen, who also happens to be Tom’s ex-girlfriend. To accomplish this task, Cody enlists the aid of tough girl and fellow ex-soldier McCoy (Amy Madigan), and Ellen’s current boyfriend and obnoxious manager, Billy Fish (a wonderfully cast Rick Moranis, playing it mean).

And that’s it. Hill keeps his plot as lean and quick-moving as a welterweight prize fighter. There’s an invigorating simplicity to the events that make up the movie. If it was remade today, the kidnapping of Ellen Aim would have to be part of some giant conspiracy involving corporations and multi-national record companies, and there would be backstabbing and double-crossing and all that other needlessly complex window dressing, and probably a Tom Cody origin story. Not here, though. Everything is exactly as it appears. Tom Cody does not need an explanation. We understand immediately who and what he is, and we don’t need anything more. Ellen is kidnapped by biker gang The Bombers and their leader, Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe, brilliant as always), for no other reason that he wants her. There is no ulterior motive, and their actions are not part of a sinister bigger plot. The bad guys start out and remain bad guys; the good guys start out and remain good guys. In between, shitloads of motorcycles explode.

What I love most about this movie—and believe me, I absolutely love this movie—is that every single scene, every single pose, and every single line of dialog, is so expertly staged. It’s like a series of themed photographs. Hill is meticulous to the point of obsession with staging and writing Streets of Fire. The dialog is stilted and phony, but in a weird way that is totally believable. It’s fifties tough guy slang but with the rapid-fire panache of the eighties, or maybe of a forties film noir. So really, not so much how tough guys talked as it is how we think tough guys talked, playing once again to the concept of American mythology. Hill’s rock ‘n’ roll tough guys stand as tall and symbolic as the cowboys of a John ford western. Every line is a carefully crafted homage to the concept of rock ‘n’ roll rebel. It’s corny in spots, but never unintentionally so — and even though that stilted corniness may be intentional, it’s never ironic or overly wink-wink the way modern films are. Hill never makes the mistake of being self-deprecating, and instead plays the material completely straight, which allows you to smirk at how over-the-top it all is while also having to admit to yourself that, regardless of all that, it’s really fuckin’ cool.

And don’t think that it’s easy to stitch together a coherent script where every single piece of dialog is a one-liner. The plot of Streets of Fire makes sense, possibly because it trades in American stock characters and iconography, but the dialog also makes sense even though there is never a single actual conversation in the entire film — and that includes scenes where characters are supposed to be having a conversation. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hill created the dialog by harvesting tough guy lines from the films of the forties and fifties and reassembling them here. While you’re caught up in the fun and laughter of the ham-fisted dialog, you might lose sight of just how clever and effective it is.

A movie with such a stylized approach to the sets and the dialog demands an equally stylized approach to the acting, and Walter Hill has assembled a cast that executes the job to perfection. Michael Pare oozes world-weary tough guy charm. I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. Ditto Willem Dafoe, in what I think might be his first major role (he’d been in a few movies the previous two years, but never in a role this meaty). Clad in black leather and the aforementioned trash bag overalls (it was pointed out to me later that they are probably leather or rubber, but I’m sticking with trash bag) and topped with the most insane ducktail hairdo ever, Dafoe’s unique look is exploited to the fullest as he hisses, grins, and glares through the entire film. If Pare is the stoic man of action, then Dafoe is his equal and opposite: the evil, scenery-chewing villain — and man, is he ever good at it.

And those names! It’s actually pretty hard to come up with an action hero or villain name that works perfectly without straying into the realm of silliness. But Tom Cody? You know exactly what kind of dude he is when you hear that name. Little things like that never really get noticed, but I think it’s a stroke of brilliance to come up with a name that is so iconic yet still within the realm of believability. And when you see Michael Pare throw off his jacket and kick ass during the credits, you can’t help but nod and go, “Yep, that’s a guy named Tom Cody, all right.” Same with Raven Shaddock. The name is just weird enough to be cool, but not so weird that you can’t imagine some guy actually having the name. And when you see Willem Dafoe in his trash bag overalls, standing in front of the flaming wreckage of a motorcycle and snarling, “I’ll be coming for her…and I’ll be coming for you, too,” you can’t help but think the same thing you thought about Tom Cody: yep, that’s a guy who would be named Raven Shaddock.

As good as Pare and Dafoe are, though, this movie really belongs to the supporting characters. Amy Madigan isn’t just a tough chick, she’s a tough chick, and once again you can’t imagine her being named anything but McCoy. And Rick Moranis? Forget it! Almost everyone knows him as the lovable loser nerd guy, but cast here as a scheming, obnoxious, condescending prick, he is absolutely brilliant. He walks that line where he’s just prick enough to be a prick, but not so much a prick that you don’t actually like him. As with everything about this movie, Rick Moranis knows exactly how far he can go without crossing the line. I’ve never seen so many characters that were both completely over-the-top yet imminently believable — once again, I imagine, because Hill and Streets of Fire play to our archetypal expectations.

Even the lesser characters in the movie have been cast with the same degree of attention. As soon as you see them, you know exactly who they are and what they’re like. In small parts as the struggling band The Sorels—Stony Jackson, Grand Bush, Mykel Williams, and a “mere days before his fame” Robert Townshend—look every bit like The Commodores as interpreted by a 1980s sensibility. It helps that each of these actors would go on to careers that may not make them household names, but certainly made them familiar faces to people who watch a lot of movies. It works perfectly for Streets of Fire to have so many people you see and say to yourself, “Yeah, I sort of know that guy.” The same goes for Richard Lawson and Rick Rossovich as the cops. You know these guys when you see them, though you might not remember from where. But you have no doubt about them as soon as they step on screen.

Bill Paxton also has a small roll as…well, the same guy Bill Paxton always plays. But man, does anyone do that guy better than Bill Paxton? When you need Bill Paxton, Bill Paxton is your man. He’s got that shit-eating grin, sneering attitude — oh, he’s just the one character in every movie, but he’s just so damn good at it! And his pompadour here is epic. Matching Paxton is Elizabeth Daily, who you might remember from Valley Girl or Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. With rare exception, she played pretty much the exact same character in all her movies, too, and she plays that character here, but she’s perfect at it. Completely irritating, but not overexposed. She’s there just enough for the viewer to cheer when Cody walks in, sees her, and says, “Why are you still here?”

You may be wondering why I haven’t gotten around to Diane Lane yet. Well, here we go. Diane Lane looks fantastic. Unfortunately, her character, despite being the impetus for everything that happens, is just a supporting player. She’s good when she’s on screen, but her character just isn’t good enough to avoid being lost amid the towering symbols that surround her. Although she’s not top billed, Amy Madigan is your female lead in this movie. Diane Lane is the Helen of Troy of the story. But she burns up the stage during the musical scenes.

Which is as good a segue way as any into talking about the soundtrack, which is as integral to the film as everything else mentioned so far — obviously, considering the movie is subtitled “A Rock and Roll Fable.” The score itself was composed and performed by Ry Cooder, and is exactly the sort of twanging, dirty blues-country-rock hybrid you’d expect from him. It fits perfectly with the on-screen action. Cooder’s score is punctuated by several pop songs, including the movie’s runaway hit, “I Can Dream About You,” by Dan Hartman. Hartman may look like an amalgamation of that guy from A Flock of Seagulls and that guy from simply Red (it’s the floppy permed bangs), but his song here is a weirdly effective and catchy embodiment of the overall style of the movie. It’s definitely eighties, but there’s a throwback undercurrent to it, something that suggests Motown or old Northern Soul — a suggestion that is increased when the song is placed within the context of the film, being performed by The Sorels in their slim-cut gray suits and Wayfarer sunglasses.

Diane Lane lip synchs a couple Jim Steinman penned theater-rock numbers with vocals by frequent Steinman collaborator Holly Sherwood. Like most of Steinman’s songs, “Nowhere Fast” seems like it’s comprised of three catchy songs all crammed into one, and while it never became a big hit, it’s still really good and, as mentioned way back at the beginning of this review, fist perfectly with the tone of the film. And damned if I can get through the song without getting caught up in all the fist-banging bravado. I’m a big proponent of the idea that what’s wrong with rock ‘n’ roll these days is that there aren’t enough bombastic anthems about fiery hearts and rain-streaked streets, performed by a lead singer banging her fist in the air. The other stand-out performance comes courtesy of a Stray Cats style retro band called the Blasters, who perform two swing-infused rockabilly numbers at Torchy’s, the rough and tumble dive bar that serves as the headquarters for The Bombers.

It should be pretty evident at this point just how enthusiastic I am about this film. I can’t believe I let it sit dormant in the back of my memory for so many years. Besides everything mentioned above, let me just point out quickly that it’s awesomely violent. Motorcycles explode, people get thrown through windows, Cody socks Ellen in the jaw, Lee Ving from the old punk band Fear socks Rick Moranis in the jaw, Amy Madigan socks Bill Paxton in the jaw, and Cody and Raven fight each other with those sledgehammer-pick axe things John Henry used to use. While the movie isn’t nonstop action, it is fast-paced and plenty action-packed. Hill knows how to make an action film, and he’s at the top of his game, here. I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t mention other essential crew members. As this is a movie where every single little part is important to creating the over-all vibe, you can’t overlook the contributions of the cinematographer Andrew Laszlo (who worked with Hill on The Warriors and perfectly captures the rain-and-neon soaked fantasy landscape) and editors Jim Coblentz, Freeman A. Davies, and Michael Ripps, who expertly cut the film to keep a high-energy rock ‘n’ roll beat without becoming overly frenetic or jump-cut addicted the way many modern films are. Like a good rocker, they simply know how to find the rhythm that works.

Streets of Fire may have been DOA at the American box office, but something about the movie clicked with audiences in Japan. It was embraced enthusiastically there, perhaps because it plays to the same sort of aforementioned American mythology as westerns, something that appeals to the pop culture impression of America in Japan. The United states and Japan have a complex relationship with each other. Japan is both instantly recognizable as something similar to the United States, but also something very different. For decades, Japan thrived on American pop culture, just as the States have proven ravenous for many aspects of Japanese pop culture. Both countries have a highly stylized ideal of each other that is based at least as much on fantasy and pop culture perception as it is on reality — maybe even more so. Which is why a movie like streets of Fire would play so well to a Japanese audience. It is quintessentially American without actually being an accurate reflection of what America is like. Like westerns, Streets of Fire is pure pulp-pop culture Americana.

It’s coated in a slick veneer of neon signs and cool outfits. The art design of the movie wasted no time in becoming a huge influence on the eighties anime scene in Japan. Many television shows and OAVs drew their look and inspiration from Streets of Fire — and some went as far as to include animated versions of the film playing in the background of a scene. The opening sequence of and many other scenes from Bubblegum Crisis draws so heavily from Streets of Fire that one enterprising anime fan edited scenes from Bubblegum Crisis to the audio from the Streets of Fire trailer, and the results are amazingly similar. And tell me that the various villains in Fist of the North Star don’t owe as much or more to Raven Shaddock as they do to the guys from The Road Warrior. Heck, Megazone 23 is completely blatant about the influence Streets of Fire has over it. And the Streets of Fire influence isn’t limited to anime. It seems like every hip Japanese director cites Streets of Fire as an influence on their work.

Well, whatever. In this case, the Japanese got it right, because Streets of Fire is one of the coolest movies ever made. The streamlined story and stylized hardboiled antics might cause you to miss just how artfully put-together the package is, but even if you don’t spend the entire movie dissecting it, you can do what we did, which was open a few beers, eat a lot of hot wings, and howl with sheer, unbridled joy. If any movie from the eighties deserves to be rediscovered and championed, this is it, because it’s rare that a movie is this much fun.

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