Taking to the streets with Walter Hill’s lavish neo-noir fantasy
By 1984, the Hollywood musical – once a major public draw and even the kind of film that would win a Best Picture Oscar here and there – looked as though it was dead and buried. Apart from Yentl (1983) or Little Shop of Horrors (1986), you’d be hard pressed to think of a successful film from that genre from around that time. High profile efforts from the start of the decade such as Xanadu and Grease 2, or oddities like The Apple, had failed to win over the public, and even the now-much loved likes of Labyrinth wasn’t a hit at the time. Yet it didn’t mean the musical had vanished. It had just decided to hide itself in plain sight, that’s all.
Pop music after all was here to stay, and thanks to MTV, its visual punch was more successful and overwhelming than ever. 1984 boasted two movies that were musicals in all but name – Prince’s flawed but thrilling Purple Rain and Walter Hill’s stylised, postmodern gem Streets of Fire. These weren’t musicals in the traditional sense – after all, no one broke into song outside of a concert performance, but they both used songs to enhance their impact. Purple Rain, which was a huge hit, benefited from the ascending star of Prince himself – his stage persona was unbeatable, irresistible and frankly, that was more than enough to paper over the cracks of the rest of the film, which as anyone will tell you, is pretty goddamned flawed. I still love it though. Streets of Fire, on the other hand, didn’t have that wild card element and was most definitely not a hit but it’s so, so worth anyone’s time. It is also arguably the last true Walter Hill classic, the last one where his vision fucking burned onto the screen.
Hill’s films are synonymous with masculinity, action, brutality and classic myths – his love of the Western (another genre that was mostly dormant throughout the 80’s) may have only been made explicit in one film from his golden years – 1980’s The Long Riders – but the motifs and themes of that genre were there to see beneath the surface in many of his other films. Streets of Fire definitely has undertones of the Western (lone heroes, outlaws, etc), but more than any other of his films, it is a fantasy. Hill wanted to make a film that was full of things he had “great affection for: 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 honour”. Not for nothing is the film’s on screen subtitle the bold, ‘a rock and roll fable’. I don’t know about you, but when I hear thrilling descriptions like that, I want in – right here, right now. This is definitely the most romantic, sexiest film Hill has made. There’s even a feminised and even downright androgynous approach at times, and when it comes to the main villain’s bizarre leather dungarees, it’s quite kinky too.
The film’s other sub-title is ‘another place, another time’, and that can’t help but bring to mind the film whose shadow was still looming large over Hollywood – Star Wars. Streets of Fire is set in a gritty, grimy but nonetheless fantastical world, full of colour, neon and an ultra-cinematic artificiality (much of it was filmed on the Universal backlot). The most immediate reference point that comes to mind is the 1950s. There are leather bikers, vintage diners, young, moody rebels, buttoned-down bureaucrats, and there’s even a band that emerges to have a major future in the record industry in the final act who specialise in doo-wop. However, much of the rest of the music is very much rooted in the overblown, melodramatic style of the power ballad, very much of the 1980s, and given that Meat Loaf/Bonnie Tyler songwriter extraordinaire Jim Steinman was one of the film’s chief musical main men, this is no surprise.
Raven: You’re real dumb if you think you can pull this off.
Tom Cody: I think you’re forgetting something. I got the gun.
Raven: I can get guns, smart guy, lots of them. Now… why don’t you tell me your name?
Tom Cody: Tom Cody. Pleased to meet you.
Also, there’s an unabashed love of glorious pyrotechnics and weapon fetishism that posits the film directly in line with the decade’s (and the action genre’s) increased love of tool-up/shoot-up and blow-it-the-hell-up. Our hero is an ex-soldier, which brings to mind the whole Vietnam-vet character-type that was a common protagonist around this time. Yet there’s also that classic Walter Hill-motif – the Western. Our guy even looks like he’s walked off the set of The Long Riders and taken some of the wardrobe with him, and he even arrives in town (albeit by train, not by horse) like a Man with No Name, although, er… he does actually have a name. It’s Cody.
He’s an ex-soldier from an unnamed war, urged to return home after receiving a telegram telling him that he’s urgently needed. In this hometown, where overhead train lines tower over down-and-dirty streets, the working-class locals, stuck in their dead-end jobs and shabby environment find their only solace in the local benefit concert being performed by Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) and her band The Attackers. Ellen’s manager and boyfriend Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) is disgusted to be here in this ‘shithole’ and dreads the worst, which happens to be the case when a nasty motorcycle gang, The Bombers, led by Willem Dafoe’s evil Raven, gatecrash the gig and kidnap Ellen, taking her to their own hideout in the next town. This is when Cody’s sister Reva (Deborah van Valkenburg, who we saw latching on to The Warriors on their journey back to Coney Island a few years earlier) pleads with him to come back.
It’s only when Cody returns home that he realises what he’s actually in for – to rescue Ellen, who happens to be his ex-girlfriend. They were real ‘hot and heavy’ before her ambitions to make it as a star alienated his more modest goals. You see, by his own confession, he ain’t that bright, but he sure is tough. He drinks his coffee black, he’s supremely handy in uneven combat and he steals the best cars. He’s the kind of guy that smart men use when they want something dirty and dangerous doing, which is how Billy ends up interested in using him. Cody initially wants nothing to do with rescuing Ellen, but we sense wounded pride in him. It’s only when Billy offers ten grand in cash that he takes the job. It’s never made explicit at the time, but I see this as Cody’s excuse to save the woman he loves without having to admit that it’s love that’s the reason he’s doing it. And of course, he will ultimately turn down the money when the time comes, because deep down, honour is Cody’s greatest strength, despite his early cynicism. He won’t be alone though in his quest to rescue Ellen – a tough-as-nails, homeless ex-soldier named McCoy (Amy Madigan) convinces Cody that she’d be very useful indeed, and given that she’s often dismissed because she’s a woman, she makes for a mightily effective surprise attack.
The set-up suggests that this will be another epic ‘journey’ movie along the lines of Hill’s earlier The Warriors, but Ellen is already rescued around the halfway mark, so the rest of Streets of Fire deals with the fallout. Cody and Co. try to make it home without being caught by the cops, and when they do make it back safe, that’s when the love between our Cody and Ellen can no longer be ignored or denied. Yet the return of Raven paves the way for a final act that’s pure High Noon (more of that Western influence). A duel is announced and Cody is pressured to leave town or risk facing death. Their eventual fight, which took a whopping two weeks to film and with no stunt doubles, is a classic, dangerous face-off where the two attack each other with massive hammers that resemble pick-axes. True to form, Cody refuses to kill Raven dishonourably when the latter loses his weapon, but Raven, scumbag that he is, refuses to lose with dignity and goes for the kill immediately. Of course he loses. But he doesn’t die. The original, much darker and violent script was to have seen him stabbed by Cody, but in a tale like this, humiliation is far worse than death. Raven is taken away by his followers, and you sense that his time as leader is pretty much over.
Tom Cody: Pay him.
Ben Gunn: Yeah, pay me!
Billy Fish: I’m not gonna pay this jerk.
Tom Cody: Listen, shithead, you give him some of your money, or I’ll give him some of your money.
The obvious chemistry between Cody and Ellen is pure classic archetype. The handsome, but stoic, wounded guy and the beautiful, lonely, full-of-dreams girl. I mean, Ellen’s only really with Billy at the moment because he offers security and a future. But sheer, white-hot, burning love? Poor Billy doesn’t compete next to Cody. When Ellen and Cody give in to each other and kiss (in the pouring rain, obviously) it’s an utterly thrilling release. And yet in the end they don’t end up with each other. Cody sees Ellen’s going to be an even bigger star, and by his admission he ain’t the kind of guy to be hurling around her suitcases. Now some of this might read as pretty sexist – the guy refusing to play second-fiddle to the girl, that sort of thing – but I don’t feel that Streets of Fire insists that this sort of thing is necessarily positive. If anything, I want to scream at Cody for walking away at the end of the film, just like I used to at Jack Burton at the end of Big Trouble in Little China when he turned his back on Kim Cattrall’s Gracie.
Despite his strengths, Cody is on many levels a weak guy, almost destined to follow what he believes is his true nature, and that means being out on the road, looking for the next adventure. Yet he’s wise enough to know to not ask Ellen to come with him – he wants her to make it big, and he knows he’ll drag her down if he stays. So all he can do is watch her sing her song from the crowd, and walk out of the concert hall, sadness in his eyes. And despite the potentially audience-displeasing unhappy ending, this is really classic movie material when you consider its similarities to Casablanca, which is, you know, one of the greatest films ever made. There’s even the start of a ‘beautiful friendship’ of sorts between Cody and McCoy as they drive off to a pastures new. Just a friendship, mind. McCoy makes it clear more than once that Cody’s not her type, and it’s heavily hinted that she’s gay. I even detected something approximating unspoken desire from Reva towards McCoy in a few scenes, but it’s never expanded on or elaborated.
Hill assembled a killer cast for his epic. Michael Paré is one of those star leads that never quite made it big. It’s a pity, for he has a cool, sad-eyed tough-guy demeanour that’s perfect for the character of Cody. It’s almost like he was born with toughness, so much that he doesn’t even need to prove himself or be obnoxious with it. If danger walks into the diner where he’s just trying to have a coffee, and it starts hassling the innocents, then you damn well know he’s going to deal with it. It’s just what he does. One of my all-time favourite instances of sheer cool-baddassness comes in one such scene where a hoodlum tries to act all fancy with his flick-knife in front of Cody. He goes for the kill, and Cody takes the weapon from him it and hands it back to him with a casual ‘try it again’. As soon as I saw that, I knew I was going to love this guy. And he clearly loves his handiwork too – who wouldn’t grin like a Cheshire cat when all those motorcycles blow-up sky high?
Diane Lane, who already had experience playing fictional lead singers when she starred in the excellent Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains a few years earlier, is stupendously beautiful, desirable and every inch the pop star as Ellen. There’s, weirdly enough, a bit halfway through where the screen looks as though it’s had a CRT-filter applied to it (it was a long process getting it to look like this particular way, starting with shooting the scene on video, not film) and it looks like Ellen’s singing in her own music video for MTV. Written in the script as someone with a face ‘of such beauty it would launch a thousand ships’, Lane looks fantastic on stage (even if that’s not her really singing) and is indeed, as Madigan put it, a ‘beautiful Venus who you’d get yourself mown down and killed for’. Yet there’s a sadness too in her predicament – when super-fan Baby Doll (Elizabeth Daily) showers Ellen with praise for her songs, it’s revealed that said songs are written by someone else. She ‘just’ sings them. But as Baby Doll says, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she lives those songs, she inhabits them, and her fans love her for that. They all believe in her, yet ultimately she’s a cog in a machine in a cutthroat business. I can only hope her unwritten future in this fantasy world was a happy one.
Willem Dafoe, who had already played an outlaw biker in 1981’s The Loveless, was already close to perfecting the reptilian, vicious and creepy villain role that he would make his own – he has one of the all-time great evil smiles, all teeth and malice. He clearly takes pleasure in the threat posed by Cody, describing him as “someone who likes to play as rough as I do”. Compared to his reliably foul villainy, it’s odd to see Rick Moranis in such an atypical, unsympathetic role. As Billy Fish (weirdly, this is around the same time Viz Magazine debut Billy the Fish, a comic strip about a gravity-defying piscine footballer), he is almost unrepentantly obnoxious. Only at the end does he seem to have anything resembling empathy. According to Paré, their on-screen antagonism wasn’t just limited to celluloid – Moranis was apparently a total jerk to him on set and came close to being knocked out for real. Whatever the case, his character in the film is just begging to be made an example of, and he’s a great jerkass.
Even though there are the traditional damsel-in-distress subplots and mano-e-mano showdowns, Streets of Fire is arguably the only film of Hill’s from around this time that has any real time for women. Previously they were mostly stood-up girlfriends, hookers and not much else. Amy Madigan comes close to stealing the show as McCoy – she’s the first bad-ass female character in a Hill movie and I love seeing her turn the tables on the dickheads who think she’s just ‘a skirt’ or a harmless threat. Mere moments after she’s first on screen McCoy’s already punched Bill Paxton’s bartender out cold (his second beating of the movie, and the film’s only been on for twenty minutes) and she only gets badder and badder. She could have had her own film. Interestingly, McCoy was originally was written as male until Madigan, originally reading for Reva, was far more interested in that role and convinced Hill to change the gender.
Billy Fish: Take it easy, Cody.
Tom Cody: I’ll take it where I can get it.
Technically the film is a treat. There’s a neat, if somewhat initially distracting use of edit wipes, not just from scene to scene, but from moment to moment. Given how Hill would controversially insert comic-book panel wipes in The Warriors when it was re-released in a director’s cut, maybe these neat transition tricks were something he’d wanted to pull off back in 1979, yet was only able to truly execute it in 1984. In fact, Streets of Fire does come across as the film Hill had always been working towards, at least in regards to imagination. It’s not his best, but it is his most ambitious and spectacular. It’s somewhat telling that, after this (and its failure), Hill’s films never quite felt as exciting, youthful, energised or contemporary.
Streets of Fire was also one of the last films to face classification problems in a time shortly before the introduction of the PG-13 release. Originally classified R, it was subsequently re-edited for a PG, with some profanity and nudity trimmed. Had it been released a year later, maybe the film would have survived uncut with the new intermediate rating. The released version is still a brilliantly tough example of that rating before the PG-13 arrived though – this is an example of what PG films used to be like. As usual with borderline films of this kind, the BBFC took no chances and released the film in its US-PG cut as a 15, which makes sense given the knife-play, fist-fights and general atmosphere of threat, although it’s a threat that, deep down, we know will never turn out to be that bad. This is pure escapism, pure cinema and ultimately harmless. After all, the film has a big fat body count of zero. Well, I’m assuming those baddies thrown off their exploding motorcycles were merely very badly hurt. I’m almost kind of glad that the more adult stuff was removed. I think this is the kind of adventure that a younger audience would have truly got into had the film been more successful.
As for the music, we have a pretty varied range of styles. Jim Steinman’s two songs that bookend the film are not quite on the level of his other mammoth power ballads and rock opuses like ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ and ‘Bat Out of Hell’, but they’re exciting and get the crowd going. Of Ellen’s songs, my personal favourite song here is the dramatic ‘Sorcerer’, which was written by Stevie Nicks a decade prior, before she joined Fleetwood Mac. It’s great and I’m surprised Nicks didn’t keep it for herself. However, only one song has come anywhere close to having a life outside the film, and that’s Dan Hartman’s soulful radio staple ‘I Can Dream About You’, performed here by Ellen’s newly discovered support act, one of whom is Little Johnson from Die Hard! Retro band The Blasters, with their rockabilly punk sound, add extra flavour, and also another era to this melting pot of a soundtrack.
Elsewhere, the music score by Hill regular and bottleneck-guitar legend Ry Cooder is absolutely superb, driving the action and the lead-ups to all kinds of explosive chaos with the same kind of verve James Horner gave to Hill’s earlier 48 Hrs. It gets you pumping. Why hasn’t it been given any kind of official release? All that’s available are the songs from the film. Incidentally, the film’s title was a direct reference to Bruce Springsteen’s own 1978 song of the same name, and was meant to have been included (Ellen was to have sung it at the end); even The Boss himself was rumoured to have been involved in production, but Bruce was too busy conquering the world and the song itself was deemed too downbeat to work in the film. Still, it’s a hell of a title.
Unfortunately, despite high hopes (the script was the subject of an intense bidding war), Streets of Fire was not a commercial success. It was half-heartedly promoted (despite its original US one-sheet being one of the all-time great movie posters of the 80s), reviews were mixed and despite overseas success (especially in Europe and Japan), plans to continue Cody’s adventures in the form of a trilogy (named The Far City and Cody’s Return) were cancelled. Yet in 2008, DTV kingpin Albert Pyun actually went ahead and directed an unofficial sequel named Road to Hell, with Paré back as Cody and Van Valkenburg returning as his sister. I haven’t been able to watch this due to its obscurity, but I can’t help but feel a little bit wary. Streets of Fire was and is such a quintessential time capsule of a movie, kinda perfect in its imperfect way, the ultimate cult movie, and I fear that lightning may not strike twice. The original is one of the great box office failures, and even though it seemed to go nowhere fast (to quote the opening song), it’s emerged as a lasting favourite. Turns out it really was born to run.