STREETS OF FIRE is a deeply, profoundly, compellingly strange movie. It’s an action movie. It’s a musical. It’s both at the same time. It’s a period piece, but set in a time that never happened. It’s fun to try to describe this movie: Is it BLADE RUNNER meets WEST SIDE STORY? Is it a Broadway-fied spin on the early Bruce Springsteen catalogue? Is it THE WARRIORS welded to a Meat Loaf album? (Actually, it’s almost exactly that.)
STREETS OF FIRE takes place in a weird contemporary 1984 future-past: A doo-wop group features prominently, the bad guys are greasers, and almost everyone drives ’50s-style dragsters, but much of the movie plays in a more of-the-era style, courtesy of Andrew Laszlo, Hill’s cinematographer from THE WARRIORS.
The story plays like a classic Hollywood teen love story, but Michael Paré’s character Tom Cody seems to have walked in from a different movie, with his ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST duster and his arsenal of weapons, just one of which being the shotgun you see on the poster up there. Cody is in love with rock star Ellen Aim (portrayed by Diane Lane, lip-sync-ing her heart out and completely crushworthy in an early star-making role), who has been kidnapped by an evil biker gang, led by Willem Dafoe in just one of his very many unnervingly incredible bad-guy roles out of an outstanding decades-long career of creeps and freaks.
To add several more layers of tone to this already schizophrenic movie, the eternally-undervalued Rick Moranis plays Ellen Aim’s manager, Billy Fish, a fast-talking stock archetype of a rival who competes with Cody for the girl. Fans of his performance in Frank Oz’s version of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS know that Moranis is the right guy for an offbeat movie like this one. He’s obnoxious and funny and really a welcome presence — it’s a shame he retired so early.
STREETS OF FIRE was directed by action auteur Walter Hill (48 HRS., THE WARRIORS, THE LONG RIDERS, THE DRIVER, SOUTHERN COMFORT, EXTREME PREJUDICE, HARD TIMES, etc.). Basically, one of the few ways you can get me to willingly watch a musical is to tell me that it was directed by Walter Hill. The title, if you know your Darkness On The Edge Of Town, comes from a Springsteen song, and all the fast cars and pretty girls certainly suggest a Springsteen spirit, but the music is actually a hodge-podge of contributions from regular Hill composer Ry Cooder, Meat Loaf composer Jim Steinman, and pop songs such as “I Can Dream About You” by Dan Hartman. The music is one of several reasons why I can’t tell you if this movie is meant to take place in the then-present, the future or the past, but it’s also exactly why this movie has such a unique energy.
I can’t argue for the place of STREETS OF FIRE in the pantheon of movie musicals, only because I’m just not well-versed enough in that genre. But I can tell you that if you’re a fan of esoteric and adventurous cinema, it’s definitely one you’ll want to give a try, at least once, with the coolest crowd you can gather up to join you.
— JON ABRAMS (@JONNYABOMB).
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