Universal // 1984 // 94 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // August 9th, 2007
Tonight is what it means to be young.
Streets of Fire, a self-described "rock & roll fable," is an odd mix of music, action, and dry comedy. It was a big-budget summer release in 1984 that performed poorly at the box office. However, due largely to its kitschy 1980s style and sensibility, it has achieved cult status over the intervening decades.
Streets of Fire takes place in "another time, another place," a world that resembles an urbanized, oppressive 1950s America with an odd futuristic -- as imagined by those living in the 1980s -- vibe.
While performing a gig in her hometown of "the Richmond," popular rock star Ellen Aim (Diane Lane, Must Love Dogs), is kidnapped by the Bombers, a vicious biker gang. A witness to the crime calls in her brother, Cody (Michael Paré, Eddie and the Cruisers), to rescue Ellen. Cody is a drifter and former soldier. He also happens to be Ellen's former boyfriend. Cody teams up with Ellen's current boyfriend, the dweebish Billy Fish (Rick Moranis, Ghostbusters), and his tough female sidekick, McCoy (Amy Madigan, Field of Dreams), to rescue Ellen from the clutches of Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe, Platoon), leader of the Bombers.
While finishing up production on his wildly popular film 48 Hrs., director Walter Hill decided to re-team with that movie's writers and producers on the an ambitious rock musical, Streets of Fire. Strangely enough, despite the unconventional theme and unknown leading actor, Universal Studios quickly greenlit the project and provided a budget over 14 times that of 48 Hrs..
While almost all big budget movies are gambles, Universal's decision seems even more inexplicable after watching the finished product. Though Hill is a capable director, and Streets of Fire has enough music and bombast to make it quite a spectacle, the film itself is underwhelming, especially for a summer blockbuster.
About an hour into Streets of Fire, I realized what I assumed to be a kidnapping subplot was actually the entire storyline. While this might have served as the first act of an epic action film, there simply isn't enough to sustain a 90-minute movie. Hill does the best he can, extending the running time with performances of full length, operatic rock songs, but the music has little relation to the story, and it also isn't that good. With the exception of "I Can Dream About You," all the songs range from forgettable to grating. Yet for some reason, Hill decided to end the film with back-to-back musical performances: the Sorels' aforementioned "I Can Dream About You," quickly followed by the movie's theme song, Ellen Aim and the Attackers' "Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young." Doesn't he realize following "I Can Dream About You" -- an eventual Billboard top ten hit -- with "Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young" will make that song -- no crowd pleaser to begin with -- seem especially lame?
And then there are the performances. With random patches of facial stubble and quiet mumble, Michael Paré comes off like a normal-sized Sylvester Stallone -- which is not a good thing; Stallone's shtick only works -- on the few occasions it does -- because of his hulking physique.
Diane Lane has very little to do in her role as the damsel in distress. But, surprisingly, she proves that she is more attractive in her 40s than she was when she was on the cusp of turning 20. Conversely, Amy Madigan seems to somehow not have aged a day in the past 20 years.
The actor who comes off the worst has to be Willem Dafoe. Not so much for his performance -- his bug-eyed growling matches the film's ostentatious themes -- but for his wardrobe. Dafoe spends much of the film wearing what appears to be a trash bag held up with suspenders; with the possible exception of Sean Connery's orange diaper in Zardoz, this has got to be one of the most emasculating outfits worn by a supposedly threatening character in the history of cinema.
The one bright spot is Rick Moranis, who plays a more ruthless variation of his Louis Tully character from Ghostbusters. As many of you may know, Moranis has unofficially retired from acting, and watching him here, I realized how much I miss him. Nobody plays dweeb better than Moranis.
Still, despite all the film's obvious liabilities, Streets of Fire does have its charms. As in his earlier movie, The Warriors, Hill successfully creates an oppressive urban reality that makes for an intriguing backdrop even when the action wanes. However, unlike The Warriors -- as well as most futuristic thrillers -- Streets of Fire has an odd youthful exuberance that is endearing even if it isn't engaging. This is an ambitious, ill-conceived movie that could have only been made by someone who is talented and overconfident. And though I can't say I enjoyed it, I admire the attempt.
As flawed as Streets of Fire is, watching it with a big screen and a good sound system provides a pleasant distraction. Since the previous DVD of Streets of Fire was released way back in 1998, Universal's HD DVD presentation is sure to be a major upgrade. The studio appears to have used a new master for this release, and its 1080p/VC-1 encode is striking, though not perfect. The nighttime scenes in particular are a bit spotty, but for a film that's over 20 years old, this print is impressive.
The movie's Dolby Digital-Plus sound mix offers great depth for the musical numbers, but, for an action movie, there are few scenes that will take advantage of the surround sound.
As for extras, there are none, which is disappointing because I assume this film was a labor of love for Walter Hill, and a commentary track might have provided a depth that was otherwise lost on me.
There is a scene halfway through Streets of Fire in which Raven confronts Cody in the middle of a burning street. Cody is armed with a shotgun and has already killed several of Raven's henchmen; Raven is unarmed and wearing a trash bag. Despite this obvious tactical advantage, it is Raven who saunters out into the street to challenge Cody. Raven promises revenge, then calmly walks back into his burning warehouse hideout.
This is only a brief exchange, but for sticklers like me it's maddening. Why would Raven walk out to challenge an armed attacker? Why didn't Cody shoot him? Even if I had enjoyed the rest of Streets of Fire, this scene would have probably ruined the film for me.
Not too many rock & roll fables have made their way to the big screen, so I credit Walter Hill for his daring and originality. However, it's not a very engaging film and -- perhaps even worse -- the music isn't even that good.
Guilty of being a rock & roll fable that doesn't rock.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated PG