A rock n' roll fable. Another time...another place.
Immediately, just beyond Ry Cooder's fantastic score, Streets of Fire (1984) shows its creative conception, especially with its editing and set design: this rock n' roll fable is set in a time that is a mix of 1950s Americana, Art Deco archeitecture, sentimental innocence and emotion and 1980s coolness, hair and fashion, and glitz. The setting is "The Richmond" which looks like a little neighborhood under an EL train where a Nighthawks-ish diner takes center focus. Local girl, Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) and her band, the Attackers, are performing a concert which is going well until pale, smooth-faced, pleather-clad Raven (Willem Dafoe) enters the concert hall with his gang, the Bombers, and kidnaps Aim. Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) was at the concert and witnessed the kidnapping. She owns the diner in the Richmond and writes a terse letter to her brother, Tom Cody (Michael Pare): "Please come home."
Director Walter Hill's previous film, 48 Hours (1982), was a massive box-office hit and is a classic today. Streets of Fire did not do well at the box office nor with critics. A lot of the flaws of Streets of Fire are obvious when compared with Hill's previous 48 Hours or with another earlier film and also a classic, The Warriors (1979).
All three of the films share a tight temporal setting: 48 Hours is set...in about two days give or take, as is Streets of Fire. The main thrust of the action within Streets takes place over a long night, a rescue mission into "the Battery," where the Bombers hole up and where Aim has been taken. Perhaps cinema has never seen The Warriors's equal in terms of its tight temporal setting: only Snake Plissken from John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981) can say that he had a rougher and seemingly interminable night on the streets of New York. There is a real immediacy, spontaneity, and energy associated with a tight, temporal setting; and Hill showed a real adeptness at channeling it. Beyond the setting, the return to world of street gangs is also familiar in Streets from The Warriors: the Bombers are just as flamboyant and colorful as any in The Warriors. Even the small group of punks who bust into Reva's diner near the beginning of Streets (led by Paul Mones who played another gang leader in Tuff Turf) are reminiscent of the Orphans. 48 Hours, to some extent, is Eddie Murphy's character taking down his old gang, under the friendly police coercion of Nick Nolte's character. These are familiar Hill motifs, but the most familiar one, which has drawn comparisons between him and John Woo, is the sense of doomed romanticism and sentimentalism in his cinema. Take, for example, Michael Beck's Swan and Deborah Van Valkenburgh's Mercy in The Warriors or, more specifically, Murphy's and Nolte's relationship in 48 Hours. Through the intense circumstances, the characters form a kinship that kindles as intensely as the circumstances. Murphy and Nolte are wise-cracking, reluctant adversaries at the beginning but at the end of the film, a strong friendship is formed (or maybe even, like in Woo's cinema, the male characters fall in love with each other).
Streets of Fire does not have the immediacy in its setting of Hill's previous work. However, it is not without trying. After Aim's rescue by Cody, the film really slows. There is not much left for its hero to do after rescuing his damsel, except beat up the bad guy. The film's pulpy, fifties-style dialogue really hurts the film as it plays out, as well: when the characters are gearing up for a fight or in the middle of one, when Pare's Cody, Amy Madigan's McCoy, or even Rick Moranis's Fish delivers an acid-tongued, tough-guy one-liner, it works. When there is no background energy with the characters' actions, the dialogue sounds even more artificial and contrived. After the rescue, Raven and the Bombers practically disappear from the screen until Streets's anti-climatic showdown. Finally, the doomed romanticism and sentimentalism is all here, as virtually every character runs on emotion. Rick Moranis, as Billy Fish, Aim's manager and new boyfriend, is the only character who delivers any dialogue stemming from objective thought or common sense. (There are a lot of characters in Streets, by the way.) Swan's and Mercy's relationship in The Warriors is wonderfully complex in simple circumstances, whereas most relationships, especially Cody's and Aim's, in Streets are simple in confused and complex circumstances.
As with most of my criticism, an auteur theory, critical approach to Hill's work with Streets of Fire when it is negative, shows the limitations of the auteur theory. For all of its utility, it may be one of the best critical approaches but its flaws are glaring. Comparing Streets of Fire to Hill's previous work, ultimately penalizes the director for not being predictable with themes and motifs and trying something different. Often also, as the auteur theory looks at a director's work as a whole, when it may be incomplete, subsequent films from the director have to come to form a unity. In other words, later works and maybe even time itself, inform the film under review, as here in Streets, and appreciation can come much later. A film can suffer critically and commercially at the time of its release, just because its different. While Streets of Fire does share a lot with his previous work, it is a fairly bold artistic risk from Hill, as it appears he was trying something new.
The film's conception, "Another time...another place," is quite exciting and really creative. Setting a film in an alternative "history," for lack of a better term, where discernible, familiar historical settings are slightly altered or mismatched, like the 50s and 80s in Streets, really flips viewers out. Sometimes not in a good way. It can be too disorienting mixing the familiar and the unfamiliar, so audiences really never get into the story. The screenplay, by Hill and Larry Gross (who worked on 48 Hours), to soften the impact of possible disorientation, goes for a simple narrative to follow with simple, cliched dialogue. The flashy visuals, from the set design and the editing, accompanied with the music (it's a fantastic soundtrack) had a real chance to supplant the story, the characters, and the dialogue: a rock n' roll fable, just to kick back, relax, and take it all in.
When I was nine or ten, I loved Streets of Fire. Now older, I realize why: it's really juvenile. Streets is completely innocent with its PG rating, very little foul language and provocative material. This okay, though, but it could still use an edge. Remember Swan and Mercy? They have an edge and they didn't have scream profanities at each other or rip each other's clothes off to gain it. That would have been okay, too, but not necessary. Diane Lane as Ellen Aim gives another performance of my youth as my ideal girlfriend when I was a little boy, after her previous roles in The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. Lane is electric and charismatic: she gives a great role with very little to do. I really didn't appreciate the scene where Pare's character knocks the shit out of her on the train and still don't understand it today. As for Michael Pare, I have forgotten how damn handsome he is and as Cody, he is fairly credible as a bad ass. Rick Moranis gives the best performance as Billy Fish, however, as his character is the only one with any complexity. Kind of a film which exists in "another time...another place." All objective facts are taken from this well-written piece here.