The Film: 4/5
Sultry rock star Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) has returned to her unnamed hometown for a charity benefit concert, much to the annoyance of her manager and lover Billy Fish (Rick Moranis). During the opening number Ellen is kidnapped by the fearsome biker gang the Bombers, lead by the pale-faced badass Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe). With both the cops and Fish powerless to do anything about the situation local diner owner Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) summons her ex-soldier brother Tom Cody (Michael Pare) home to rescue the captured Ellen from Raven's clutches. Tom agrees to do it provided that Fish pay him $10,000 for his troubles, ten percent of which he promises to fellow soldier and newfound friend McCoy (Amy Madigan). With Fish in tow Cody and McCoy make their way into the Bombers' dangerous territory and manage to escape with both Ellen and their lives. After a journey back to the safety of their home neighborhood fraught with peril Cody and Ellen find themselves at odds with one another over the love they still share that they've tried desperately to repress. Meanwhile Raven is thirsty for vengeance and demands to fight Cody to the death on the soldier's turf.
"Custom cars, kissing in the rain, neon, trains in the night, high-speed pursuit, rumbles, rock stars, motorcycles, jokes in tough situations, leather jackets, and questions of honor." Welcome to Streets of Fire, your all-access pass through the pulp-soaked wonderland that is the imagination of Walter Hill, one of the finest filmmakers of pure chest-beating action movies the moving image was ever fortunate enough to be blessed with. Streets was made at a time when Hill was on top of the world thanks to the smashing success of 48 Hrs., the same film where Eddie Murphy first proved he was just as capable of giving a dramatic performance as he was a comedic one. These days filmmakers with ironclad box office track records are often given license by the studios to indulge their every creative whim to the tune of blank check and little-to-no executive interference. It's the "one for them, one for me" (Or is that the other way around?) policy, and Streets was clearly one for its director, who co-wrote the script with his 48 Hrs. collaborator Larry Gross. From first frame to last it's quintessential Hill, and then some.
The movie takes its title from a Bruce Springsteen tune that first appeared on the Boss' 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town. It's a great song that Hill wanted to license for the soundtrack, but when Springsteen objected to it being re-recorded by other artists the director hired famed songwriter and producer Jim Steinman to write a pair of original songs to be performed in place of "Streets". The soundtrack's oil-and-water cocktail of 80's power rockers, gritty 50's-style tunes, and the ultra-sleazy slide guitar score by the great Ry Cooder reflects the "unstuck in time" tone of the film. With the invaluable assistance of production designer John Vallone (Predator) and art director James Allen (Weird Science) Hill has created a world where the pre-Civil Rights era and the Reagan Years co-exist as if the previous two decades of social progress had never happened. How else to explain the presence of kids with pompadours and bobby sox watching Diane Lane's sultry pop vixen belting out slick, MTV-ready songs at the opening and closing of Streets of Fire? All-black doo wop groups get hassled by racist cops just a few blocks from where nymphettes with hair that looks like it was dyed with spray paint peddle their wares under sizzling neon signs in the dark of foreboding nights, all photographed in lurid reds and blacks by Andrew Laszlo - who also served as cinematographer on Hill's Southern Comfort as well as First Blood, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and Tobe Hooper's 1981 carnival horror The Funhouse.
The plot is partly lifted from Hill's early hit The Warriors, which itself was based on a novel that had its roots in the classic Greek war story Anabasis, with rough-and-tumble heroes from a Robert Aldrich or Sam Fuller film doing battle with a biker gang straight out of a late 60's Roger Corman drive-in triple feature. Universal Pictures, which bankrolled the $14 million production and allowed Hill and his crew to turn the New York Street area of the studio's fabled back lot into their cultural purgatory of a playground, has anticipated a massive summer hit in Streets, but those poor fools were deluded from seeing the sad truth. This movie would be too much for audiences of any decade. It wasn't even designed to be a crowd-pleaser to anyone but its director. For its opening weekend Streets was competing against Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and would ultimately premiere at #5 with a gross of $2.4 million. By the next weekend it faced even stiffer competition in the dynamic duo of Ghostbusters and Gremlins. Poor Streets of Fire never stood a chance, even with its audience-friendly PG rating.
An afterlife as a cult film on video and television was the only promising future it ever had. Fortunately Streets has endured over the years for many reasons, but mostly because it's a good story told well. Hill was never one to spell everything out on screen and his characters often keep their emotions in check or channel them into acts of aggression or heroism. You get a sense of the love Cody and Ellen once shared through their interactions, not via unnecessary flashbacks. Stars Michael Pare and Diane Lane don't set off fireworks when they share the screen, but there is something there that has been dulled by the passing of time and the dying of the crucial spark that powers most timeless stories of romance. Though they make barely competent on-camera lovers both actors excel when it comes to delivering on the two towers of awesomeness Streets of Fire is notable for among its fans: Pare convinces as a battle-hardened tough guy, while Diane Lane oozes the forbidden fruit from every pore when she's performing in front of a live audience. Removed from their natural habitats, they both suffer in the acting department. These shortcomings are temporary because Hill knows how to keep the action moving and explosive. None of the bruising set pieces in Streets stand out in the director's testosterone-drive oeuvre, save for the mid-movie assault on the Battery to rescue Ellen and a climatic fight to the death in the street between Cody and Raven that Hill would later revisit in spirit with the final throwdown between Sylvester Stallone and Jason Momoa in his most recent effort Bullet to the Head. Everything else is incidental, but amidst the colorful mayhem Hill allows the story a fleeting moment of visual or musical poetry. The best example is when our heroes and their freed damsel hijack the tour bus of a struggling doo wop quarter played by Stoney Jackson, Grand L. Bush, Robert Townsend, and Mykelti Williamson and after getting wind of Ellen's fame the group decides to serenade their captors with a tender love song. For a brief moment Laszlo's camera glides over the peaceful and enraptured faces of these tough and bitter souls and they smile with pure bliss. Why wouldn't they? It's a beautiful song and the best music has captivating powers most of us would kill for.
Amy Madigan's performance as Cody's equally badass sideckick McCoy is worth its weight in tequila and gunpowder. She doesn't smile much but gets a healthy portion of the script's funniest and most quotable dialogue, as does Rick Moranis in an uncharacteristically exacting turn as Ellen’s no-nonsense manager. Willem Dafoe is ghoulish and oddly charismatic as the film’s biker baddie Raven and he’s backed up admirably by Fear lead singer and rhythm guitarist Lee Ving as his second-in-command Greer. Richard Lawson (Poltergeist) plays the town’s resident sheriff with nightclub-swinging gusto. Deborah Van Valkenburgh, who has played the unlikely love interest in The Warriors, brings out the sweet side in Cody as his brassy sister Reva. The cast is rounded out by smaller supporting performances from Bill Paxton as a mouthy bartender, E.G. Daily as a devoted fan of Ellen’s, Peter Jason as a crooked cop, and Ed Begley Jr. as a wily transient with information valuable to the heroes’ success. Dave Alvin and the Blasters show up to sing a few tunes as the house band in the Bombers’ hideout Torchy’s (a name used before in Hill’s movies).
Second Sight has rescued another Walter Hill title from shoddy Region 1 treatment (previously they released his Southern Comfort and The Long Riders on Blu) by giving Streets of Fire the full 1080p high-definition treatment, presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio and projected at 23.98 frames per second. The picture quality represents the best the movie has looked on home video and I doubt it can ever be topped. Streets was shot on 35mm film with Panaflex cameras and lenses and processed at Technicolor, and the movie was projected in 70mm for select engagements throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Second Sight has removed most of the intrusive grain content and repaired any and all signs of print damage, with special emphasis in the restoration process on heightened details and preserving the beautiful and vibrant color scheme. This is a Streets few of us have ever seen before, and it looks positively gorgeous and a huge step up from the HD-DVD release Universal put out Stateside in 2007. We get two audio options here: English 2.0 PCM stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks. Both channels are strong where it counts, but it is the 5.1 track where the movie comes to life. The dialogue is crystal clear, music is kept at a reasonable level, ambient sounds never get swamped in the overall mix, and though the volume is slightly lower than the 2.0 we get the added bonus of everything coming through without audio distortion. Barely reference quality, but home theater owners will get a real kick out of it all. No subtitles have been included.
The major new extra (in fact, the only new extra) on this release is the feature-length retrospective documentary "Rumble on the Lot: Walter Hill's Streets of Fire Revisited". Running a hearty 79 minutes, this new feature was produced by Robert Fischer and Fiction Factory - makers of many fine DVD and Blu-ray supplements for the likes of Second Sight, Arrow Films, and Olive Films - and is comprised of fresh interviews with director Hill, art director James Allen, and stars Pare and Madigan. Lane, production designer John Vallone, and music producer Jimmy Iovine also appear but only through archival interviews filmed during production in 1983. The filming of Streets of Fire, its initial less-than-enthused reaction from critics and moviegoers, and its ultimate resurrection as a cult classic on video and cable is discussed in amazing detail with many interesting stories about Hill's visual and literary influences in making Streets, working with a relatively unknown cast, and turning the fabled Universal back lot into a time-warped playground of music and mayhem among others.
Most of the vintage interviews and behind-the-scenes footage glimpsed in Rumble on the Lot can be glimpsed in full under the Electronic Press Kit sub-menu. Here we can find a series of short video featurettes about the music, visuals, extras wrangling, etc., as well as a longer featurette on the making of the film, a teaser trailer, and a trio of on-air promotional spots. The feature runs 24 minutes in total.
Finally we have two promotional music videos created to help sell Streets to the MTV-saturated youth audience of the time, both containing footage from the actual movie - "Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young" (4 minutes) and "I Can Dream About You" (4 minutes).
Streets of Fire might have had greater success at the box office had it been made twenty years after it was originally released, when directors like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino built lucrative careers and amassed considerable studio clout by drunkenly indulging their every cinematic and literary fantasy on celluloid. In the mid-80’s it was labeled an unclassifiable anomaly, but today Streets can be seen and appreciated for being a little more ahead of the curve than most of its more profitable competition. Best of all, it’s great fun for anyone who enjoys a pulp thrill ride awash in stylistic excess. Second Sight’s Blu-ray is the best home video presentation of Streets of Fire to date with greatly improved picture and sound and a terrific new retrospective documentary. It may never get any better than this, and that’s okay by me.