2015 Film Essays

We Failed This Film: Walter Hill’s ‘Streets of Fire’

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We Failed This Film is a series about various films that simply didn’t get the love that they deserved upon initial release. For the sixth entry, we’ll be busting out some head-bangers as we look at Walter Hill’s underseen and underloved Streets of Fire.

How We Failed It

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Walter Hill created some of the most iconic cinema of the time with films like The Warriors, 48 Hrs., The Driver and Hard Times. However, one of his greatest works from that period flopped upon release and was buried for a long time. That film is 1984’s Streets of Fire.

The plot kicks off as pop star Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) returns home to perform a benefit concert. After the opening number, she gets kidnapped by a biker gang, “The Bombers,” led by Raven (Willem Dafoe). Reva Cody (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) is there and contacts her drifter brother Tom Cody (Michael Pare), who is also Ellen’s ex-boyfriend, to rescue her. Tom agrees for 10 grand from Ellen’s manager Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) and teams up with tough soldier McCoy (Amy Madigan) to pull it all off.

Streets of Fire had an abysmal box office run. With a budget of $14 million, it saw only a meager return of $8 million in its domestic release. After the massive hit that was 48 Hrs., it was disappointing to see Hill’s follow-up do so poorly. Critics weren’t much kinder. Gary Arnold wrote, “The disappointing thing about Streets of Fire is that it can’t deliver on the promise of a tangy, sexy evening of stimulation. The failure is aggravated by the exorbitant scale of the production, which seems much too lavish for an atmosphere of B-movie squalor. Not that one can work up a major case of disappointment about such a harmless attraction, but even that hesitancy is a clue to what’s gone wrong. “Harmless” is a strange word to find yourself applying to a movie directed by Walter Hill.”

Roger Ebert was a little kinder (but still disappointed), writing, “This looks like it’s going to be a new approach to the basic street and rock images. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t live up to its opening. It turns into your basic fable about warring street gangs, with a superman (Michael Paré) and his tough female accomplice (Amy Madigan) breaking into the headquarters of the rival gang and bringing Diane Lane back alive. This ground has been covered before, most obviously in Hill’s The Warriors, a controversial 1978 thriller that was credited with inspiring more fights in its audience than on the screen.”

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Why It’s Great

The title cards introduce the film as “A Rock & Roll Fable” that takes place in “Another Time/Another Place…,” which is an accurate presentation of the film. Hill creates a cinematic world that exists in its own time and place, and it’s about as 80s rock ‘n’ roll as it gets.

The city of Chicago in Streets of Fire is an aesthetic sight. It’s an industrial toilet. Everything looks run down and dusted up. It’s worth noting that you never see the sky in this film. Buildings and L Train tracks dwarf everyone into this industrial hell. Even though the music is from the 80s, the people and the sights seem to be from the 50s. Classic cars and greasers roam these streets. It’s almost as if the cast and setting from American Graffiti went to some destitute urban hell.

The entire cast fits their roles well. Michael Paré has the steely demeanor and cool to play the lone wolf, but there’s a real vulnerability bubbling underneath his bad ass exterior. This was Diane Lane’s first big role (she was only 18), and it’s easy to see that she’d go on to have a big career, as she electrifies when she performs her songs. Rick Moranis is surprisingly skilled at playing a scumbag in Billy Fish, a truly detestable money-man whose humiliation by Tom is always satisfying, especially the iconic insult, “The only problem with beating the shit out of you is it would be too easy.” Bill Paxton is enjoyable as dimwit bartender Clyde, who worships Tom. Amy Madigan has the charisma and spark required for McCoy.

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But it is Willem Dafoe that’s the real highlight here as Raven, and his opening scene is among the most classic of villain introductions. He and his biker gang enter Ellen’s show, remaining in the shadows. Hill eventually cuts to a closeup of his face as he slowly enters the light. With just one look at his devilish smile and his possessed eyes, you know he’s capable of terrible things. When the opening song ends, he just shouts “NO!!!” and then storms the stage, punches Ellen and kidnaps her. Later, there’s a gloriously demonic shot of him walking through a bunch of flames unscathed to threaten Tom. When he speaks, he is commanding and frightening — fear never seems to make its way into the psychotic Raven.

One of the interesting things about Walter Hill’s early filmography is that he would work in small but potent moments of social commentary focusing on the gap of lifestyle and means between his criminal protagonists and the upper class surrounding them. Consider the scene in The Warriors when the prom dates get on the bus and sit across from Swan and Mercy. They just stare at them, forced to look at a life that has been denied them. In Streets of Fire, it comes in a brief exchange between Tom and Fish as the former breaks down the lopsidedness of their agreement: “You smart guys….you always figure you can hire a bum like me to do your dirty work.” Tom is nothing but a tool for those who can afford him, and he knows that’s all he can be in this world.

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Streets of Fire is essentially a classic western tale in an 80s rock ‘n’ roll getup. You’ve got your lone wolf and drifter bad-ass (Tom Cody), a damsel in distress (Ellen Aim), a villain that rules with fear (Raven) and a town that looks the other way at his crimes. When Raven and Tom Cody have their final showdown, it’s only fitting that pickaxes are involved.

The film is constructed as a barrage of cool, almost like a 90-minute music video that consists of a fantastical montage of fists, guns and rock ‘n’ roll. Right from the opening scene of people gathering at Ellen’s concert, the editing is in service of creating the most exciting and exhilarating collection of shots that it can. When she busts out the opening banger “Nowhere Fast,”  you’re as hyped up as the audience is. Hill shoots the action in the most heroic and manically exciting fashion that he can. When Tom goes to rescue Ellen, he doesn’t just take out the bikes, he shoots their tanks so they explode — most of the time while people are still riding them. When Tom enters his sister’s café, Hill sets up the most heroic scene he can for him. A couple of 50s-type greasers come in and start harassing the waitresses, so Tom beats them all up, throwing them through windows and stealing their car. Hill makes the action here so over the top — but so enjoyably and committedly so.

Going Forward

This is a different issue to diagnose for Streets of Fire, because as opposed to the previous films I’ve covered in this column, this one was released over 30 years ago. The damage has long been done. The healing can only happen through home video, and there is actually a Blu-ray release of the film with plenty of bonus features, though unfortunately you need a region free player to watch it. Hopefully, somebody will bring it region 1-side soon, and Scream Factory seems like a good home for the film. Regardless, one of the great things about Streets of Fire is that it’s never too late to see a particular film, so the best you can do is simply revisit the early work of Walter Hill and admire. Let’s also hope that he comes out of retirement for one last showdown, we can’t let Bullet to the Head be his final work!

Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.

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