Cine Outsider header
front page    disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  
Taking aim
Director Walter Hill's kinetic and cool output of the late 70s and early 80s dovetailed too well with Camus' teens and early twenties. In other words, STREETS OF FIRE was made for him. He has some serious fun with the Blu-ray.
 
  "As far as creativity goes, I think you get your head to a place where things are discovered, not invented. It's that Platonic, Keatian idea that you don't really write a poem; it's already there, and you find it. I think that's true for the audience as well: they discover what they already know or intuit. And that's the most ideal relationship between the audience and the storyteller."
 
Director, Walter Hill*
   
  "How Streets Of Fire fits in with my work in general? Oh, I dunno. You know, in one sense, the movie you could probably say that it's very silly..."
 
Director, Walter Hill (from the Extra 'Rumble on the Lot')

 

Author and one time Playboy columnist Cynthia Heimel wrote a book that I consider seminal on her particular subject (unfortunate choice of words given the book is about sex but there we are). Called Sex Tip For Girls, it is a must-read for anyone interested in having sex. I realise that's a pitiable minority of us but bear with me. At the very start of the book, there is a veritable list of reasons why a girl should never sleep with a boy on her first date. The reasons are compelling, hilarious and full of common sense and received wisdom. And the killer line at the end of this paragraph? "Unless you really want to." Streets of Fire is a 'Unless you really want to...' movie. There are so many compelling, reasonable and frankly watertight reasons not to enjoy it but the combination of them, the glorious music, the dialogue wading in cliché creek and the director's passion for action makes the brew so intoxicating. If you are a reasonable, sensible person you may not like Streets of Fire... unless you really want to.

Think of it like taking a movie holiday, returning to a place you've been before many times. You know what's coming, you know how things will pan out, hell, you probably know half the dialogue before it's delivered and yet it's still such fun, silly even and you don't care. You love it all the more for that silliness. I was smiling as I wrote that. Streets Of Fire is a blast. If you crank up your amp, switch off your brain and the part labelled 'personal entertainment needs' and go with the flow, the easy action, the high powered rock score, the neon soaked streets (of fire?), barely sketched characters and a script cherry picked from everything a teenage boy might have heard in a thousand or more movies, then a lot of fun is yours for the taking. Director Walter Hill is no slouch when it comes to action and the second quote above tells you he's well aware of how sensible people may perceive his gutsy love letter to classic romance. Remember that Hill directed The Warriors and Southern Comfort not to mention the pilot of Deadwood and his idea of putting an android on board the Nostromo in his uncredited pass on the original Alien script made so much more of what was originally on the page). The two subtitles at the start of the movie (and this is a movie, not a 'film') give you a hint. Collectively they are a password into another world, permission for the fantastic to trump the authentic, for the "Whatever..." to rule over the "Hang on...", for the cliché, however ripe, to score over the 'real'. This is 'A Rock & Roll Fable' set in 'Another time, another place...' That should be enough. All the signs and ciphers are in place. Take it at face value is to get no worth at all. You have to let the director's game play out and what a show.

The plot, if I was being a little playful is this; rock chick is kidnapped. Ex-boyfriend is called in to rescue her. He does so with help. Romance is rekindled but the bad guy demands a one on one (with jack hammers!) to satisfy honour. To open that up a little more... Ellen Aim (Lane) and her band are entertaining the local kids in Goodguyville. Bad guy Raven shows up (Willem Dafoe's debut) with his biker gang, the Bombers, and storms the stage kidnapping Ellen. Tom Cody arrives in town (is there a better name out there for a drifter hero?) at the behest of his sister. Ellen used to be Tom's girl and for a fee (just to circumnavigate his bruised emotions) he agrees to rescue her with help from her agent and his newly picked up sidekick. That's all there is to it. But be safe in the knowledge that the fee will never be taken even though it's earned and he will fall into Ellen's arms again... To reveal more would be mean spirited but you only have to have seen a few movies to successfully guess how things may turn out. After all, Streets Of Fire is a movie about other movie clichés and narrative inevitabilities.

Our hero is a fighter, initially reluctant but brave, laconic and handsome. The actor playing him (Michael Paré – check out that accent) is a little on the oaken side delivering lines with an almost mock-Stallonian sloth. He serves the film well – physically, he's just right - but there are a few giveaways as to his relative inexperience. He is not helped by dialogue deliberately designed to be cliché-worth but when he shouts after his first rumble buddies after they threatened his sister "Go on, go home!", there is a slight cringe. The line is, well, to be frank, silly and it would be hard for the great Olivier to deliver such a silly line. So these guys are going to run home leaving their car for the hero to steal? Hey, go with it! The heroine, despite the bouffant 80s hairdo, is a hugely desirable kick-ass rock chick. Hullo Diane Lane, 18 years old, still growing into her sexually confident screen persona but still knock-out gorgeous. The sidekick (Amy Madigan playing against her sly but paradoxically effervescent femininity) is loyal to a fault and the hero's sister (Deborah van Valkenburgh) reminds us what kind of decent people live in a world the hero's fighting for (a little removed from her bad girl taken for the ride in The Warriors). Rounding off the stock characters is Billy Fish (wasn't he a piscine goalkeeper in Viz? I think his middle name was 'The'...) played suitably, in annoying prat-mode, by Rick Moranis, all bluster and hyperbole knowing that even though he has the girl under his control, he'll never have her in any other way. The staggering weight of adolescent wish fulfilment should have made this boat sink. Instead it anchors itself to its own world, its own waters blockaded from a sea of realist sincerity and cynicism just as the giant tarpaulins covered the set and kept it from encroaching daylight. Streets of Fire is one hundred per cent teenage fantasy and as such is an absolute hoot.

It's set in a nameless American city, in an area called 'The Richmond', neon soaked, under the railroad track (a la the Manhattan chase in The French Connection) curiously studio bound (for some reason this is charming and not off-putting) and has two distinct areas – where the good guys live and where the bad guys live with maybe a purgatory area in between. Yeah, it is that 'simple'. It's violent but curiously no one gets fatally hurt or killed. The police say things like "He belongs in jail like all the other juvenile delinquents..." which is so not what any real policeman would ever say (and if The Wire is anything to go by, there'd be at least a few choice cuss words in there too). But Streets Of Fire is not set in anything remotely close to the real world. And you have to watch it like that or it all falls short of reality, suspension of disbelief or no suspension of disbelief. It's a chocolate éclair of a movie, delicious but avoided by the sensible and given its ephemeral nature, I have no idea why it's stuck around my head for so long. I think the music (Ry Cooder's score, music producer Jimmy Iovine's guiding hand and Jim Steinman's two Wagnerian rock anthems) has a lot to do with that. Oh yes, tonight is what it means to be young... Director Hill has said that the music is perhaps more important than the visuals. There is no doubt of its power and ubiquity in the movie with the two stand out songs given lush production value with an inordinate amount of care in their direction. The other musical numbers are very good but it's Ry Cooder's interstitial cues that I have adored since I first saw the movie. That twang guitar and resolute thumping bass stitch the movie together in a way that any conventional score would struggle to do. This is after all, a 'Rock & Roll Fable'. Apart from the opening cue, the piece over Cody's sister sending a telegram is also a winner and guess what? The soundtrack album just showcases the songs. Cooder's score is simply not available. This has the curious effect of having them feel fresh whenever I hear them because I've not played them to death. Having said that I've just made a CD of these cues from the movie and I'm listening to it as I type...

The editing by Freeman Davies and Michael Ripps is a constant delight particularly when Hill lets them play. (Just as an aside, these are the two editors given front credits but at the end roller, there's a nod to 'Film Editors Jim Coblentz and Michael Tronick'). Black spacing is used to punctuate scenes (there's a whole scene in the second act where black is intercut predominantly). "Just to be different," seems to be Hill's motivation - in most movies this is hardly a sufficient reason. But in Streets Of Fire, inexplicably it works without a pretentious frame in sight. The graphic optical sheared wipes with accompanying sound effects are a real pleasure, just the kind of hip transition that signs the movie boldly. I still get a thrill watching them slip past me. If you want economy in editing, watch how Hill directs the hero rescuing the heroine tied to a bed and how it's subsequently cut. Editing like that enchants me. It's an artist saying to his audience "You can work all this out, I don't have to spoon feed you." As ever, sound as well as music is hugely important, no more so than the swish-swish of the butterfly knife as Cody disarms his first assailant, snaps it back in the handle and hands it back to his attacker. "Try again, punk." For some youthful wish-fulfilment reason, I adore that scene. The only editorial mis-step for my money is the very first time we see the hero in close up on the train. It's twenty frames in duration, barely time to take him in. It's followed by his POV and then what I took to be his real intro shot, a low angle track as he stands holding the rail. The first close up feels like a timing mistake. Hey, is that my only complaint?

There are loads of moments in the film that make me smile; the shape of Dafoe's hair in the smoky light of the auditorium; the naiveté and gawkiness of Rick Rossovich's young cop who is so uncool it's a wonder his name's not Cinder. Perhaps that's why Hill ironically named him Officer Cooley? His dialogue is so on the nose and delivered with an abject seriousness, he makes me laugh every time he pops up - "Any more driving like that and I'll give you a ticket..." Seeing a very young Bill "It's not happening, man!" Paxton getting popped by Amy Madigan's McCoy is also a thrill. With a hairstyle like that he may have been asking for it. Check out his sneer towards McCoy when he serves Cody after the rescue attempt. In any other film that would be ham acting by the swine load. Here, it just fits. I must add my astonishment at Willem Dafoe's costume at the rescue attempt. I know these are seriously talented people (led by costume designer Marilyn Vance) buy Dafoe looks absurd dressed in what can only be described as bin bag waders. The fact he's not wearing anything else emphasizes his costumes' absurdity. He is so powerful a figure and so charismatic he almost pulls it off. And could this movie be the winner of the "Latest Director Credit" in the front credits? 'Directed by Walter Hill' fades up at 15 minutes and 44 seconds.

I knew there was something 'up' with this movie the first time I saw it but I couldn't put my finger on it when it was released. Now its knowing, winking spirit is almost too obvious. Sometimes directors have a plan. Some work, others go by unappreciated. Allegory and broad subtext are often misunderstood and not taken as intended and before you know it, your nuanced metaphorical tone poem on the action movie (that may be a little over the top) is just seen as 'just' an action movie and your allegorical fiery streets end up sodden with a parade thoroughly rained on. Look what happened to the knowingly self aware Last Action Hero. But I still loved Hill's neon soaked paean to everything wonderful about being young...(from an American perspective of course). Every single cliché was in place. In fact, looking at the movie with 2013's eyes, it's almost utterly absurd, the practise of everyone in the movie saying what's happening or exactly what they're thinking. Whether this was ever intended to be funny, I don't know but from a recent viewing, it's a riot. This isn't to disparage the movie. Hill knew exactly what he was doing conjuring up dialogue from planet Hyper-Nose. The words were a soft and very well known blanket for us to be comfortable on while Hill laid on all the action beats. This was to be a movie built almost exclusively for fifteen year olds. The story, if it is at all important is archetypal from its toes on up. We are in, as the movie says "Another time, another place..."  This is 'a man's got to do what a man's got to do' territory with about as much self-reflexivity as could be mustered. I've never seen a film give in so profoundly to its own genetic inheritance. It wears its genes on its streets and if you're unsure that this is the film-makers' intentions then sample this lot... This is dialogue you have to really work on to make it this clichéd...

Billy Fish: 
Take it easy, Cody.
Tom Cody: 
I'll take it where I can get it.
Tom Cody: 
You smart guys. You always think you can hire a bum like me to do your dirty work. Well not this time!
Tom Cody: 
Hey, you always walk around packed?
McCoy: 
I told you, I'm a soldier.
Tom Cody: 
Well, don't go pointin' that thing at me, I wouldn't like it.
McCoy: 
I don't go pointin' it unless I'm gonna use it.
Tom Cody: 
Yeah, right.
Raven: 
I'll be comin' for her. I'll be comin' for you too.
Tom Cody: 
Sure you will. And I'll be waitin.'

Based on dismal box office returns, it seemed no one 'got it'. I certainly didn't at first. Hill was having a blast but in commenting slyly on what made an action film work, he ran the risk of being taken at face value and well, that's when it all unravelled. Problem is, Hill is too good an action film-maker. His intentions on this film (who the hell am I to even guess at what they were?) were hidden in his own skill. He wanted the movie chock full of everything that appealed to him as a teenager so stuffed the bowl brim full of honour, bravery, snappy one liners, on the nose dialogue that makes even the toughest groan. You sensed the performers were following a script (when was the last time you watched a movie and sensed the actors were reading lines?) but again, you fall in love with movies and people and they are often full of contradictions. You give me the Streets of Fire screenplay and I'll throw it across the room. You give me the movie... Different story. Arrange the honeymoon.

sound and vision

The 1.85:1 transfer looks terrific, no question. If you're nose is at the screen you can make out the grain (especially visible in areas of low light). There are a great deal of variations in contrast and colour throughout the running time (and even throughout certain shots) but the HD format deals with these with aplomb. Blacks are not as profound as they might be thereby sacrificing some detail but as practicality the whole movie is set at night, the neon comes through all colours and bright as day. It has a real dreamlike quality that is rarely broken by anything approaching reality.

The Set Up menu option gives you a choice to play either the DTS HD Master
Audio 5.1 or the original Stereo PCM track. Here's where I get a little confused. I have the basics of movie soundtracks down pat but what I don't understand is how you get from a 1984 Stereo track to a full 5.1 surround without a great deal of expense and a completely new remix. It would be good if (unlike the lesser IMAX, 'IMAX-DMR' bullshit we're subjected to) the Blu-ray specified if the 5.1 was a new mix, discrete channels to all the speakers or if it was simply a 5.1 expansion of the stereo. I suspect the latter because the output at the back felt like a quite weak general stereo that I was getting out of the front. There may have been a few effects that felt discrete, the sound effect accompanying the razor wipes perhaps but while the 5.1 is preferred (anything coming out of the rear is always a plus – and please keep that sentence in context), there was a feeling that there was more 'love' in the original Stereo. I know from reviews of the 2007 HD-DVD release that a discrete 5.1 mix was included but no reviewers have been too impressed with it. This movie needs a loud and proud presentation of its greatest asset and while the 5.1 tickles the rears, the sub gets very little attention. You want that thumping bass to be extra thumpy but without paying to remix it myself I can't see that extra special 5.1 mix appearing any time soon. But hey, it sounds gorgeous so what am I complaining about?

extra features

Rumble On The Lot: Walter Hill's Streets Of Fire Revisited
A new feature length documentary featuring interviews with Walter Hill, Michael Paré, Amy Madigan and James Allen (1 hour, 19' 06")
This one's a hoot. Retrospective thoughts on your previous work must bring to mind some curious recollections. The movie was made almost thirty years ago and was intended to be a celebration of "Tonight is what it means to be young..." which means nothing on close examination but everything if you're young enough to imbue to line with significance – and what teen never bothered with attaching significance to things, especially things that were perceived as cool. What I really like is the fact that it seems to occupy a special place in most of the interviewees' hearts. There's no apologizing for it (Hill's admission of its inherent silliness doesn't feel like a criticism) but stick around after the end credits for a bit from Hill that I assume derives from a very silly question giving Streets Of Fire a weight that it perhaps cannot claim to have.

Michael Paré looks astonishing given he must be fifty-five now and his glee at his good luck is evident in every entertaining story. All the contributions are valid and entertaining – Amy Madigan's joy at punching out Bill Paxton is also a treat. It's also a relief to me that one of Hill's statements on the movie featured on a script page says the following under all the cross-genre pyrotechnics going on: "And in a rather special way, it's meant to be a comedy." Watching it in 2013, I laughed a lot more than I did in 1984.

Original Electronic Press Kit (Standard Definition – 23' 56")
Featuring Rock and Roll Fable, Exaggerated Realism, Choreographing the Crowd, Creating the Costumes From the Ground Up, Personality Profile, Featurette, Teaser Trailer, On-Air Promos.
This 'EPK' is a real gem, a snatch of the madness of production covered in such a way that predates DVD Extras but is almost made as the prototype of the beast. It's divided into eight sections with a rough theme for each and seeing the cast and crew in the maelstrom of production is almost like witnessing the innocence of everyone before the public and critics get their hands on the final cut. Knowing the film so well, it's always eye opening to see something so familiar under construction as it were. The crew's ambitions in snatched sound bites seem now in hindsight after its failure in the US almost bittersweet. I know from experience what kind of Herculean efforts it takes to make a film and to have it dismissed out of hand after all that work is poured into it must be a crushing feeling.

Music Videos (Standard Definition – 8' 40")
'Tonight Is What it Means To Be Young' was the obvious breakout hit contender but mystifyingly it didn't catch fire. The music video is intercut rather smartly with a liberal amount of footage from the movie including a rather lovely cut from the rescue scene mentioned earlier (Cody's hand and knife swish down on Ellen's bonds which then cuts to Ellen on stage moving her arm up) – I love stuff like that. The stereo mix is not a patch on the stereo or the 5.1 on the feature. As this music video has come from the original marketing materials at the time, it's technically limited. The other effort suffers from the same SD stereo origins but oddly this was the song that had modest chart success. 'I Can Dream About You' is performed by Dan Hartman with actors lip-syncing as the fictitious band The Sorels in the movie. It reached No. 6 in the Billboard charts in 1984. It was the only facet of the entire production which was a hit which mystifies me but hey. If it was judged 'silly' or 'dumb' then there were a great many wrong ends of the stick that were being grasped.

summary

This one is lodged in a very young part of my brain and it's going nowhere, fast. The cinematography, production design, action and music have burrowed into a sort of teen nest created by my younger self. I get biennial waves of appreciation for this, granted, odd movie which tried to summon up a fantasy world of stock heroes and villains, sidekicks and damsels in distress, clichés that almost re-invent themselves and honour against the odds. I still find it strangely moving seeing Paré close to shedding a tear at the climax. That emotion is reinforced after hearing the man speak in the behind the scenes documentary. OK, let's be blunt. This movie is not to everyone's tastes. It may even seem to be 'simple' in the pejorative meaning of the word but if you're in the right mood, it presses most of the buttons and if nothing else, you have that extraordinary score and lashings of Walter Hill action to enjoy. Treat that teenager inside you to a blast of entertainment that demands nothing of you.

 


* http://thehollywoodinterview.blogspot.co.uk/2009/09/walter-hill-hollywood-interview.html

Streets of Fire

USA 1984
93 mins
directed by
Walter Hill
produced by
Lawrence Gordon
Joel Silver
written by
Walter Hill
Larry Gross
cinematography
Andrew Laszlo
editing
Jim Coblentz
Freeman Davies
Michael Ripps
music
Ry Cooder
production design
John Vallone
starring
Michael Paré
Diane Lane
Rick Moranis
Amy Madigan
Willem Dafoe
Deborah Van Valkenburgh
Bill Paxton

disc details
region B
video
1.85:1
sound
PCM 2.0 stereo
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
extras
Rumble On The Lot: Walter Hill's Streets Of Fire Revisited
Original Electronic Press Kit
Music Videos
distributor
Second Sight
release date
18 November 2013
review posted
5 November 2013

related reviews
The Warriors
The Warriors [Director's Cut]
The Long Riders
Southern Comfort

See all of Camus's reviews