There is no vertical limit on inanity, a principle aptly proved by this unbelievable mountain climbing movie. It begins on sacred cinematic ground, Monument Valley, where the air is defiled by three climbers singing the old Eagles tune “Take It to the Limit.” They are a family: siblings Peter and Annie Garrett (Chris O’Donnell and Robin Tunney) and their father (Stuart Wilson). While hanging from one of the mesas, they are caught in a spectacular fall, and Peter must make a decision that changes their lives.
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.
If ever we needed proof that a real go-getter with an upbeat and fully-developed philosophy of life can also be a raging sociopath, Louis Bloom supplies it. The main character of Nightcrawler admits he has been studying a lot on the Internet, and the way Jake Gyllenhaal inhabits the role leaves no doubt that Bloom has spent a great deal of energy learning how to act like normal people. With all that readiness, Bloom hits the ground running when he stumbles into a possible source of income: freelance video journalist.
In this case, that means slinking through the streets of L.A. at night, trying to get to crime scenes and car accidents before the police shut off the area. TV news pays for the grisly footage — if only Bloom and his “intern” (Riz Ahmed, from Four Lions) can get there before their rival jackal (Bill Paxton).