Monday, July 19, 2010

Streets of Fire: A Rock 'n' Roll Fable

Walter Hill’s self-proclaimed “rock n’roll fable” clanked at the boxoffice when originally released in 1984. But my wife and I enjoyed it immensely and, over the years, Streets of Fire has gained in stature. Some critics now praise its unique look, terrific music, and skillful blending of genres. The plot seems lifted from a 1950s biker film, but the sometimes corny dialogue recalls “B” Westerns of the same period. Hill avoids specifying a setting; it’s just “another place, another time.”

A high-octane concert performance by Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) and the Attackers kicks off the film. But before she even finishes her song, Ellen is “stolen” by the motorcycle gang, the Bombers. With the hapless police unable to take on the Bombers, diner owner Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) looks elsewhere. She writes her brother Tom Cody (Michael Paré), Ellen’s former flame, and asks him to come home.

Tom, still embittered by his breakup with Ellen, initially refuses to rescue the kidnapped singer. He changes his mind when Ellen’s current boyfriend and manager (Rick Moranis) agrees to pay $10,000. As he explains to his sister: “They always hire bums like me for jobs like this.” With newfound crony McCoy (Amy Madigan) and Ellen’s manager in tow, Tom ventures into Bomber territory to free Ellen.

Hill’s fast-paced direction keeps the film moving at a speedy clip, especially during the rescue scene. I love the remarkably concise six-shot sequence in which Tom rescues Ellen, with each shot lasting no longer than a second or two: (1) Tom kicks open the door; (2) Ellen looks at him from the bed she’s tied to; (3) Tom snaps open his knife; (4) we see a close-up of Ellen’s hand tied to a bedpost; (5) Tom cuts the rope; and (6) Tom and Ellen run through the doorway.

Visually, Hill fills the screen with contrasts, dressing up drabness with eye-candy. With the exception of Ellen, the main characters are costumed in muted earth-tone colors and live in dreary, rundown buildings. But, during the frequent night scenes, the town sparkles playfully with bright neon signs of blue, yellow, orange, and pink.

Complementing the bright lights are glittering music performances by Fire, Inc. (with Lane lip-syncing), the Blasters, and others. Hill’s affection for the music is apparent—the film closes with two energetic stage performances which almost play like music videos. The terrific closing song, songwriter Jim Steinman’s grandiose “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young,” sadly flopped when released to radio. However, the other closing song, “I Can Dream About You,” turned into a surprise Top 10 Billboard hit for its writer Dan Hartman.

The cast of Streets of Fire features many memorable faces. Lane and Willem Dafoe (as gang leader Raven) would each enjoy long acting careers. Rick Moranis established himself as a dependable supporting actor in comedies such as My Blue Heaven and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Bill Paxton, featured in a small role as a bartender, made the biggest leap. Over a decade later, he finally snagged leading roles in “A” films like Twister and A Simple Plan.

Unfortunately, such good fortune did not await Michael Paré. A good-looking, brooding performer, Paré did not fulfill the promise of Streets of Fire and the earlier Eddie and the Cruisers. He would make one more minor hit, The Philadelphia Experiment, then be relegated to low-budget action films that often went straight-to-video. One can almost imagine him saying: “They always hire actors like me for films like that.”

7 comments:

  1. I've always liked this film, but I must admit that for years I'd watch it mostly for Diane Lane (the same's true for Coppola's THE OUTSIDERS). But now I can appreciate the stylish cinematography, the killer soundtrack, and Walter Hill's stellar directing hand. A lot of Hill's movies hit the ground running, and I think some of his better films (1989's JOHNNY HANDSOME and 1992's TRESPASS) would have been forgettable features from any other director. I'm not a fan of Michael Paré, and I think it might have been better with a stronger actor. So, while I'll still watch STREETS OF FIRE mostly to see Diane Lane, I can definitely say that it's a great, memorable film, and Rick, you've done a splendid job writing about it!

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  2. Rick, I will have to add this to my "gotta see " list of films. I enjoyed reading your Awesome review!!

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  3. I remember 2 things about this film...1) I thought Michael Pare was hot (even though I was not a teenager when I first saw this film on HBO), and 2)The song "I Can Dream About You". It's sad, but I hardly remember Diane Lane being in this film, but whenever I hear that song I equate it to this film. Interesting choice, Rick. I enjoyed reading your review.

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  4. Rick, this was a fascinating film and it always seemed like it came out before its proper time. Diane looks so young here and Michael had that whole pouting look downpat. I thought the music was quite strong. When one can leave the theater singing the songs it says something was definitely right about their selection. Great write-up!

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  5. I really enjoyed these comments, especially about the terrific music! I neglected to mention Ry Cooder, who did the score. Also, backup singer Marilyn Martin sang lead vocals on one of the songs; a year later, she paired with Phil Collins on "Separate Lives", a #1 hit from WHITE NIGHTS (I wasn't particularly fond of that song nor the movie). As for Walter Hill, I'm fan of several of his early movies. Controversy aside, THE WARRIORS is intriguing and exciting. The 1975 HARD TIMES is pretty good, too, with Charles Bronson as a bareknuckle fighter and James Coburn his manager during the Great Depression.

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  6. If anyone is interested in the long and busy career of Michael Paré, please visit www.michaelpare.com

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  7. Rick, I saw this movie a long time ago. True it isn't one of my favorites and I don't care for the music. However, it has the very hot Michael Pare in it and he is worth watching the film to see. I have always liked him and followed his career. Many of his films aren't very good but I still enjoy them like Moon 44 and Carver's Gate. Enjoyed reading your review though. I do plan to check out the website pointed out by ThatGirl who has good taste I might add.

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