Friday, June 12, 2020

Let the revels begin, let the fire be started—we're dancing for the restless and the broken-hearted


Directed by Walter Hill
Written by Walter Hill and Larry Gross

Spoiler alert: moderate

Streets of Fire is one of those movies where, if you read about it, or heard its soundtrack album, or even just saw some fan-made music videos of it (preferably edited to silence the dialogue and deemphasize the acting), you could get to thinking it was the greatest movie ever, or at least a classic deserving of a larger cult than it has.  Consider everything it has going for it: it's an 80s action musical romance, which is already fascinating; it was directed by Walter Hill at the height of his influence (for only in 1984 would Paramount have let him make such an odd genre-bender in the first place); it features a cast with a mixed track record, but whose later work makes the prospect of checking out their early days intriguing, if for no other reason than to see what Diane Lane and Willem Dafoe looked like when they were fresh out of their packaging (they each arguably looked better at age 40, albeit for different reasons); above all, it features two songs by Wagnerian rock god Jim Steinman.  To discover it only spins gold into straw is disappointing, of course; but to discover it's not even acceptable straw?  That's downright depressing.

You don't discover this immediately, as Streets of Fire allows you ample opportunity to grapple with just how badly it's letting you down.  Indeed, the film's ice-cold open makes a damned strong case for "underappreciated classic," as we elliptically bounce around what the intertitles call "another time, another place," but is ultimately mostly a fantasia of mid-century Chicago.  So: we find our way into a concert by The Attackers, fronted by one Ellen Aim (that's Lane, her singing overdubbed by Laurie Sargent and Holly Sherwood simultaneously, for extra oomph).  The Attackers begin their set with one of those two great Steinman songs, "Nowhere Fast" (though, in truth, it only became all-time-great when he did it with Meat Loaf later that year on Bad Attitude, and the arrangement here is worse).  Hill, choreographer Jeffrey Hornaday, and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo have done a lot here before we've really even started, conjuring up a fine little music video—Hill and his three editors graciously permit most of the films' songs their full length—but the plot has already begun, whether we realize it or not, as fairy tale evil bears down on Ellen in the form of a motorcycle gang, The Bombers.  Arriving as a squadron of silhouettes in leather caps, Laszlo blasts them from behind with explosions of white light from the entrance as they approach the stage, only permitting their central figure to resolve into the snarling face of Raven (Dafoe) at the very instant he rushes to seize Ellen and render her back to his lair for unspeakable acts.

With the stakes thus established with enormous cinematic urgency (and downright video game-like efficiency), what remains to be seen is if Tom Cody (Michael Paré) is a bad enough dude to save his ex-girlfriend, though it's the $10,000 offered by her manager Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) that nudges him into action when the exhortations of his sister Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) fall upon deaf ears.  Along for the ride comes McCoy (Amy Madigan), a former soldier like Tom, and Tom insists that Billy accompany them as well, much to the latter's incessant whining.  They breach the Bombers' defenses—unfortunately, getting out will be even harder than getting in.

So: while Streets of Fire is peppered with minor stuff getting so out of hand that it becomes major (for example, the silly and clumsily-applied jagged-edged wipe transitions of the opening credits), its real problems take root in one extraordinarily bad screenplay, compounded by actors who hated not only their jobs but each other, and thereby imparted their own bitterness onto a script that was already dangerously sour.  Obviously, the film's emotional conflict revolves around Ellen, Tom, and Billy—Tom having run out on Ellen as her career burgeoned, Billy having opportunistically swooped in, and Ellen still holding a torch for her old beau; I assume Steinman would've presented Hill with "Holding Out For a Hero" if he hadn't already blown it on Footloose—and while these clichés aren't inherently terrible, terrible is exactly what they become when the two most active points on this triangle are so psychotically unappealing.

Paré sucks, as is Paré's custom, though I'll give him this: Tom Cody is the most charismatic I've ever seen him be.  That's still not very charismatic, but he's also extremely ill-served by writing that makes his character such an egregiously one-note sullen asshole (and, in fairness, makes everybody else assholes of various other single notes).  Some of that's not screenplay, however: Paré has been forthright about the unpleasantness of the shoot, and evidently Moranis sparked a real-life enmity with him the moment they met, which could've conceivably worked for a movie where they play rivals, but my God, they turn dialogue that is already plenty hateful on the page into outright curdled milk on the screen, and it is the least fun thing in the world to watch.  (Moranis, a comedian, can at least sometimes make his lines funny; but even this is pretty rare.)  Then again, Billy isn't special; Tom is a dickhead to everybody.  Likewise, everybody is a dickhead to him.  Everybody is a dickhead generally, and the flash of genuine antihero enjoyability that attends Tom's introduction—when he playfully deals with some two-bit hoods by handing their leader's switchblade back to him, to try again—is snuffed out beneath a subsequent hour of impossibly bitchy brooding, sneery backbiting, and a brand of machismo that is neither interesting nor particularly credible.

I had somehow gotten it into my head that Steinman himself was involved in Streets of Fire's conception, probably because it just seems so Steinmaniacal, exactly like somebody tried to make his songs into a movie: archetypal Bad Boys and Sexy Girls; juvenile, male-centered romance; an abstracted magical-realist American hellscape; retro-50s greaser attitude; so many motorcycles.  It kept me fooled while I was watching it, because it also looks like somebody who had no idea how to write a movie, like Steinman, did so regardless.

Maybe he should've!  When Steinman saw the first screening, he was embarrassed by it.  Jim Steinman was embarrassed.  Jim Steinman is famous for writing lyrics like "surf's up! and so am I" and weird erotic novelty poetry about werewolves.  But it had always been Hill and co-writer Larry Gross's baby.  They were aching to follow up on Hill's The Warriors with something even more time-lost and wild (and eager to exchange The Warriors' Xenophon riff for an even looser Homeric one, though I don't know if naming their victim Ellen/Helen was that deliberate).  In the meantime, they had things like Coppola's juvenile delinquent films—not to mention the early-80s wave of Grease-descended, 50s-nostalgic, self-evidently unviable musicals—to influence them.  And so Hill struck upon Streets of Fire—which he's also likened to a comic book, which is unduly mean to comic books, but it is basically a PG-rated Sin City.  That comparison, specifically, is anachronistic, but if you told me Frank Miller wrote this, I could not doubt you.  After all, other than the absence of ultraviolence (and ultrasex), it feels exactly like the shittiest strains of Miller noir: hard-boiled dialogue ratcheted down to borderline-inarticulate grunts, filling out a cod-mythic narrative so essentialized that it's only boring.  (The lesbian-coded McCoy—there's but one stray line that nixes the prospect of "the more-or-less openly-lesbian McCoy"—comes off particularly Milleresque.)  As for whether they need to be likeable or interesting characters, when what we have is fundamentally a mission movie, well, it's not much of a mission movie either: Hill, whom I know had one action masterpiece in him—Last Man Standing is the best Yojimbo, don't let anyone tell you otherwise—comes up with precious little in Streets of Fire that you could not find in any number of low-budget 80s actioners, and possibly less.

Except it's not low-budget (Streets of Fire was a noticeable bomb), and that's where some compensations come in, even if the characters are terrible and it can't figure out how to put an action set-piece between the end of the first act and the finale.  Foremost among those compensations is Laszlo, who'd already shot The Warriors for Hill, and brings that style back in full force, except most of Streets of Fire was stagebound and filmed under a tarp.  Yet the application of Laszlo's 70s-style grit to the more fanciful, artificial elements turns out quite wonderfully, with Laszlo managing a difficult but rewarding balance between production designer John Vallone's rain- and neon-soaked fever dream of an urban neverwhen and The Warriors' own low-light, impressionistic semi-realism.  It doesn't look exactly like its staggeringly good poster, but it comes close.  If this aesthetic were backed by even modest entertainment, and not just the occasional laugh-out-loud bad-movie misjudgment (I'm incredibly impressed by a nominal "hero knocks out his girlfriend for her own good" moment that is not remotely founded in the story's logic, suggesting that someone just wanted to see Lane get socked in the jaw), Streets of Fire could've been Goddamn amazing.

Now, it does find a few other nice beats: the final battle with Raven would be fun in any movie that was fun otherwise, and honestly Dafoe is the single actor who's in tune with what I presume Hill and Gross originally wanted (rather than what they actually got), so somehow the film's arcade game rape monster is also its most personable character, perhaps because he's the only one who seems to enjoy anything, even if what he enjoys are such undesirable activities as kidnapping women, stalking dramatically through flames, and dueling his enemies with spike hammers.  The latter gives Streets of Fire a halfway-decent climax, but it's still got some ways to go before it stops, with an epilogue that plays as a massive burp of discontinuity, with every single character resetting to zero and acting like they actually bonded over the course of their adventure—is Paré charming now? the hell?—and we conclude with a Casablanca ending that might bear more pathos if it didn't involve nasty non-entities.  At least this is played out against the backdrop of Ellen Aim and the Attackers doing the film's second all-time-great Steinman composition.  I have no caveats about this one, because I've had the overproduced magnificence of "Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young" on repeat for more-or-less the last two days.

Now, Steinman's characteristically-horny anthem still has nothing whatsoever to do with the story we just witnessed, but, frankly, that's true of every song in this "musical": the plain truth is that Streets of Fire, while described as a musical, and billing itself as a musical (its full title properly reads Streets of Fire: A Rock & Roll Fable), isn't really a musical in any rigorous sense.  It's an action film with bands in it.  It does have roughly twenty minutes' worth of musical performances—one reason why it's so astonishing that Hill couldn't fill up the mere 74 minutes remaining with much excitement—but those performances never really matter except, perhaps, as good songs in their own right.  It's nice that they are good songs (the rockabilly number excepted, naturally, and yet "rockabilly" sadly seems to be exactly where composer Ry Cooder decided to take his tacky, tonally-inconsistent score).  So the one song that interacts with the story in the slightest meaningful way is an interstitial bit where the good guys have kidnapped a doo-wop group for their bus, and these Sorels sing for their new sort-of-friends, causing our heroes to crack some weary smiles.  More moments like this might've worked to make Streets of Fire a less ugly experience.  Which brings us right back to that epilogue, which can't feel like anything but a desperate attempt to impose positive feelings onto something that, up till now, was nothing besides negative vibes.  It inevitably fails, and not only is this effort confusing, it's frustrating.  I would have loved to have seen the Streets of Fire that those last ten minutes pretend happened.  Annoyingly, I only watched the Streets of Fire that actually did.

Score: 5/10


  1. Adding to the crazy, Albert Pyun made a no-budget, unauthorized sequel WITH Michael Pare.

    1. I know! I read about it, but couldn't find a place to mention it. I'll admit I'm curious about it, but I don't even know if I want to see it. The contemporary Channel Awesome-level greenscreen, and everything else about the trailer, suggests I do not; I mean, even Pyun's Captain America still looked something like a real movie and not a Nostalgia Critic sketch that acquired Michael Pare and a feature's length.

      I do wonder if Dollman's any good, though.