It’s a 1980s movie with 1980s music set in 1950s style in which a surprisingly liberal army recruits women, the cops openly ask for bribes, and racism is still a thing. Also…leather overalls are a thing. This is what director Walter Hill dreamed about as a kid. He must have had an interesting childhood.
Fantastic lead singer Ellen Aims of Ellen Aims and the Attackers is performing a show, when suddenly motorcycle gang The Bombers attack and kidnap her. A witness to the kidnapping, Reva, calls her brother Tom Cody to come get Ellen back. Tom agrees to help Ellen’s new boyfriend and manager Billy Fish rescue her along with a female soldier named McCoy, and the trio break into Bombers territory. On their way back, they steadily build up a full crew of fighters, fans, and bands, until inevitably getting back. But the Bombers and their leader, Raven, want revenge, so Tom and Raven have a show down in the middle of the streets with pickaxes because…I’m sorry, what am I watching?
Streets of Fire was made because Walter Hill, producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver, and screenwriter Larry Gross had found huge success with 48 Hrs. With Paramount Productions willing to take a gamble on an original idea after that film’s box office returns, Hill, Gordon, Silver, and Gross decided to put together a possible start of a franchise combining rock and roll, 1950s cars, styles, and gangs, with the 1980s action hero and 1980s teen movies, all surrounding a doomed love story where both parties know it can’t last yet still can’t help themselves. They pulled the title from a Bruce Springsteen song and then got down to casting: Michael Paré, Diane Lane, Rick Moranis, Amy Madigan, Willem Dafoe, Bill Paxton, Richard Lawson, Deborah Van Valkenburgh…and even a brief appearance by Lynne Thigpen, who the kids might remember as the Chief from the Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? game show and games.
This bizarre mess of a movie includes subtle notes of sexism, violence, police brutality and racism, more violence, Willem Dafoe in leather overalls, more pompadours than an 18th century French ball, and a hero in suspenders and a trench coat. Again, I ask, what is this movie? Bill Paxton is sporting a bad fake tooth, there are hordes of teenagers roaming the streets, and even the bums dress better than I do. And since most of the movie is about traveling through gang infested territory while being hounded by law enforcement, it’s like Walter Hill remade The Warriors as a ’50s musical about the streets, but with fewer embarrassing portrayals of Puerto Ricans than we might see in, say, West Side Story.
Streets of Fire bombed at the theaters. Critics were confused by it, and the box office only pulled in about half of its budget. It faced off against Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which, let’s face it, you were going to the movies to see if we could get Spock back. Yet it found some popularity overseas and has gained a cult following over the years. It also became an inspiration for a few game developers at a little company called Capcom and helped play an important role in the 1990s arcade scene, forever changing video games.
How’s that? Well, Streets of Fire proved popular with the developers of a game called Final Fight. The game features the same general plot of a group of guys traversing a gang-filled city to rescue a kidnapped girlfriend and kicking ass along the way, but the most obvious inspiration is in the main lead, Cody, named for Tom Cody and modeled off of Michael Paré’s appearance in the film. While the film may not have done well, Final Fight became a massive hit, both in Japan and in the United States. It spawned several sequels and eventually featured characters crossing over into the Street Fighter franchise, including the Cody character. It also let to competitors creating their own titles to compete, such as the series Streets of Rage. The beat ’em up genre, to which Final Fight and Streets of Rage belong, became a mainstay in arcades of the early 1990s, with franchises like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons, and X-Men all joining in. Though unintentional, Streets of Fire built a lasting legacy in the hands of many players.
But as for the film, it’s not all a dumpster fire; far from it. The music is catchy (ok, way better than catchy), the action convincing, and many of the side characters are fascinating even if they fall into stereotypes. Bill Paxton’s wannabe-tough guy bartender is humorous, Amy Madigan is genuine in her loyalty even if she does keep reminding the audience that she’s a soldier, and Rick Moranis plays the self-absorbed and self-important manager to the hilt. The absolute standout is Willem Dafoe as the creepily pale leader of the Bombers; as much as I joke about those leather overalls, he carries a smirk that lets you know he’s cruel, intelligent, and definitely lethal. As a villainous counterpart to the stoic tough guy lead, he’s fantastic.
Unfortunately, it’s the leads that don’t successfully carry the film. Michael Paré’s performance could best be described as stoic but more likely would be compared to a bland brick wall, one that needs to work harder on growing out that mustache that he seems busy trying to will into existence during the movie. Diane Lane is better, both in her singing and performing and in her emoting, though there isn’t much chemistry going; if anything, it’s more that Moranis is such a stooge that makes Paré worth going back to. As great as Walter Hill finds kissing in the rain, it just doesn’t make up for everything else. Though I must say, Tom Cody’s plan to protect Ellen Aim by getting her on a train and then suddenly knocking her out with a left hook is…unexpected. It was definitely an eye opener. And it’s also definitely a piece of why some critics call the film misogynistic because, well, I’ll just let you think on that.
Still, it is an interesting cinematic experience, and one you won’t really find elsewhere. It’s worth checking out if only for the strange unique nature of the film. That’s why I sought it out, and that’s why you should too. Also, leather overalls. I still just can’t get over that particular wardrobe mistake.