Appellate Judge Tom Becker picks up spare cash with his combination of intensity and dance; he calls it Chris Walken'.
She dropped out of high school this morning.
Tonight, she's a Times Square hooker.
Teenage runaway Cookie (Melissa Leo, Frozen River) and her younger brother, Tim (Randall Batinkoff, Kick-Ass) arrive in New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal, alone, broke, and scared. Immediately, Cookie catches the eye of Duke (Dale Midkiff, Maximum Velocity), a charming pimp.
Cookie adjusts quite well to the role of Times Square hooker. Duke sets her and Tim up in charmingly shabby apartment with another workin' girl, Heather (Deborah Offner, Black Swan), and Cookie seems OK doing some Streetwalkin' and loving her some Duke.
But as is often the wont of men who trade the favors of young girls for cash, Duke is no bargain. Sure, looks nice, and yeah, he drives a huge, white Caddy with red pleather interiors and fur trimming, but the boy has a temper. A terrible temper. Some might call him "psychotic." Actually, most would call him psychotic, especially after he beats the tar out of Heather when she tries to escape his clutches—and then, makes love to the unsuspecting Cookie while Heather is lying in a pool of grue just a few feet away.
Smart Cookie figures it's time to get away—not from the street life, but from Duke. So she sidles up to rival pimp Jason (Leon, Waiting to Exhale) and offers to be his girl, a proposition Jason finds enticing. But first, there's the matter of dealing with Duke, who doesn't seem like he's going to be a good loser.
Streetwalkin' is a strange little soup. In its opening minutes, it seems fairly clear that we're headed for Cautionary Tale territory, with the naïve and fragile runaways seduced by the sinister Duke. The credits roll—with shots of the old, sleazy, and sometimes missed mid-80's Times Square while the hard-soul bit of '80s funk of a theme song plays—and we're certain that the next scene will be of poor Cookie being coerced into some bit of sexual degradation by the now-revealed-villainous Duke.
But no. Cookie's OK strolling the Minnesota Strip and acting like head cheerleader to Duke's football hero. She's taken on the "mom" role with Tim; the other working girls and street denizens form a scuzzy, yet functional, community. Street life is just shown as another way of life, and director and co-writer Joan Freeman takes a refreshingly nonjudgmental approach to the subject.
When Duke goes off the rails—which is pretty much right away—it seems less a comment on that dangers of prostitution than it does the melodramatic impetus for the story. Duke—incidentally, the only white pimp portrayed in this world—is viewed by the other characters as a dangerous anomaly rather than the norm. No one suggests that Cookie flee town, only that she should leave Duke. Even the badly beaten Heather isn't giving up hustling because of its inherent dangers; she wants to leave because Duke is nuts.
Evidently, no one especially likes the guy, because pimp Jason uses Cookie's defection as an excuse to "deal with" the thin, white Duke. Thus, most of the film hopscotches between Duke being targeted for destruction, then getting away and going after Cookie, and Cookie spending the night turning tricks.
Of course, the end goes all crazy with gun play, car chases, and assorted violence, but the happy wrap-up message seems to be that if you get off that lucky shot, you'll live to hustle another day.
Freeman and company get a lot right here. The low budget—this is from Roger Corman's Concorde Films—meant that the crew couldn't build sets and had to shoot in real locations; thus, the gritty mid-80s Times Square/42nd Street milieu is front and center, making the film an authentic snapshot of scuzzy times gone by. While some of the sex-for-cash scenes are played kind of for laughs, there's nothing outrageous or ridiculous about them. It's edgy as opposed to exciting, more frank than sensationalized, though the requisite violence and nudity are there. Save for the pre-credit sequence in the bus station, the entire film takes place over the course of one night, making it sort of a Hooker Graffiti.
The thriller aspect is what keeps the film moving, but the well-developed characters make it interesting. Almost all the main actors went on to successful careers, a rarity in exploitation films; not surprisingly, then, the performances are quite good.
Leo is sympathetic and believable as Cookie, and a very young Batinkoff quite good as her younger brother. Greg Germann (Ally McBeal) is convincingly creepy as a fringe character called…Creepy. Offner, Annie Golden (I Love You, Phillip Morris), and Khandi Alexander (CSI: Miami) turn in fine work as some of Cookie's hooker friends, as does Leon as the friendly pimp Jason. Veteran Julie Newmar (Batman: The Movie) steals every scene she's in as "experienced" streetwalker "Queen Bee," and Antonio "Huggy Bear" Fargas shows up as a well-dressed pimp who refers to his girls as "ho's," perhaps one of the earliest such iterations of the term in a movie.
As the deranged Duke, Midkiff gets to cut loose, carry on, play bad guy, play sexy guy, and do all the over-the-top stuff you'd expect in an exploitation film. He's not so over-the-top as to be ridiculous, though. It's a conspicuous performance, but it works well here.
The disc, from Shout! Factory, offers up a decent anamorphic transfer but a kind of weak stereo audio track. As a supplement, there's a commentary from Freeman and producer and co-writer Robert Alden, who is also Freeman's husband.
A well-made drama and a pretty accurate representation of the New York City sex trade in the '80s, Streetwalkin' is a solid little film that rises above its exploitation roots.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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