A self-described “A Rock and Roll Fable” from “another time, another place,” I think of Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) as a rock and roll western dropped into the urban badlands of a brick and neon noir. It opens on what appears to be the 1950s frozen in time, a working class neighborhood forgotten in the explosion of the post-war American big city dreams. It could be Chicago (where some of the film was shot) or New York or any city, really, a film noir in comic book color, and it’s where former soldier turned shaggy soldier of fortune Tom Cody (Michael Paré) returns to play reluctant hero.
The opening sequence is a model of narrative efficiency and stylistic exhilaration, setting the atmosphere and culture of this urban backwater where the elevated train rumbles the reminder of the way out of town and the neon-bedazzled old music palace is the only reminder of the glory days. It’s lit up to welcome superstar Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), the local girl made girl as a rock and roll star, and the crowds are revved up for the show. So is Raven (Willem Dafoe in lizard-faced villain mode), who leads his biker gang The Bombers (doppelgangers of Marlon Brando’s The Wild Ones right down to the cocky caps) into town and leaves with Ellen in tow: a western raid reworked in mid-century mode. It’s all set to the beat of Jim Steinman rock anthem belted out by Ellen Aim and the Attackers and supercharged by jagged wipes, driving cuts, and a restless camera that sweeps along with the swirl of constant movement. It is action cinema as pulp mythology and it is exhilarating.
Streets of Fire came out of the success (and the urban crime movie edge) of 48 Hrs and the DNA of The Warriors, this time channeling fifties motorcycle movies and western raid-and-rescue adventures. Diner owner Reva Cody (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) sends out a call for her brother (via telegram, of course) and Tom rides into town on the train, though it’s closer to midnight than high noon. This is the kind of story that mostly plays out after dark. And while some shots were grabbed on location, most of the film was shot on the backlot where Hill and his team were able to turn the New York street set into the archetypal film noir city. I think of this as the bones of the city that Blade Runner was built over.
Tom takes a sidekick, a fellow former soldier named McCoy (Amy Madigan) who knows how to handle herself, and a scout, Ellen’s manager and boyfriend Billy Fish (Rick Moranis), who makes up what he lacks in size with attitude and lip, and sets out for the lawless warehouse district, the urban answer to the western badlands. In a raucous bar called “Torchie’s” The Blasters knock out bar band rock and Raven holes up with his gang and his prize. If Cody and McCoy actually conferred on a plan, it was all offscreen. They seem to be improvising in perfect synch but it turns out getting in is easier than getting out, as The Warriors showed us, and there’s plenty of chest-thumping banter as the growing group (they pick up a giddy fan and a lost vocal group on the retreat) barters its way out of enemy territory. Between the songs, a guitar rock score by Ry Cooder keeps the beat.
Hill has always had a passion for archetype and myth as reworked through the American genre idiom and Streets of Fire is probably the purest, most distilled expression. There’s no depth to the characters. They are icons who slip into their appointed place in a story that could have come from a rock power ballad. Paré’s Tom Cody has a name and a look right out of a western and Lane’s Ellen has the style of a film noir femme fatale and the tough assurance of a Howard Hawks heroine. Of course she and Tom were once lovers and the sparks fly as they clash, heating up Billy, who embraces his nerdy origins but never backs down from a challenge. This guy clearly fought his way to success and he’s not about to let this cowboy Cody swoop in on his woman. Dafoe has a goblin smile as Raven—he looks downright alien in his first major studio part—and a fashion sense to match (what is with those latex overalls?). And Madigan plays McCoy, a part written as male, without anything more than lip service to the gender switch. She’s a professional who steps up as a warrior as if born to it, a bounty hunter on the urban frontier. And the final battle? Not guns or fists, no. It’s personal, mano-a-mano with rail-driving hammers (again, how frontier).
There’s no pretense of realism. This is Hill’s urban western as hoodlum Oz populated with pure pulp characters and driven by style and attitude and love of genre. That love is contagious.
Rated PG for stylized comic book violence.
Debuts on Blu-ray in a two-disc special edition from a new 2K scan of the interpositive. It’s a great-looking disc that brings out the vivid textures of the neon and grunge color and production design but still preserves the hallmarks of a movie shot on actual film.
The Blu-ray debut provides a bonus disc with not one but two feature-length documentaries: “Hotguns and Six Strings: The Making of a Rock and Roll Fable,” produced exclusively for this release and featuring interviews with director Hill, producer Lawrence Gordon, co-screenwriter Larry Gross, actors Michael Paré and Deborah Van Valkenburgh, and many other members of the cast and crew (100 minutes), and “Rumble on the Lot: Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire Revisited” with Hill, actors Paré and Amy Madigan, and art director James Allen, produced for the British home video release of the film (82 mins).
Carried over from the earlier DVD are five vintage featurettes, music videos, an animated still gallery, and trailers and promos.