Walter Hill and John Carpenter are, I think, two directors with some similarities to each other. Walter Hill perhaps isn’t so famous by virtue of not plastering his name above the title of his every film (something which is now actually a hindrance in Carpenter’s downturned career). While Carpenterfocused more on horror, Hill focused more on urban crime. But they both have (or had) a gift for economical story telling, and stylish violence. It’s easy to imagine Carpenter directing something like The Warriors, if Hillhadn’t got there first.
Streets of Fire, a 1984 oddity that I’d somehow missed up until now, is one of Walter Hill’s rare attempts at directing science fiction/fantasy (although he’s dabbled plenty as writer and producer). Again, it’s the sort of material Carpenter himself might have gone for, back in the day.
It’s a strange movie, make no mistake. But always fun and interesting because of it. It’s set in some sort of alternate universe — “Another time, another place…” the movie proclaims at the beginning — where fashion and music from the nineteen-eighties has collided with fashion and music from the nineteen-fifties, giving the film a retro-futuristic look that’s dated surprisingly well, even in spite of Willem Dafoe’s black rubber dungarees that he likes to chill out in. The language is a mix of modern and tough talking, like in a hard-boiled fifties movie where everyone is trying to be a wise ass.
The storyline is simple. Diane Lane is a pop sensation, packing in the crowds every night who listen to her big, cheesy, eighties power ballads. But who’s that in the shadows? It’s evil biker, Willem Dafoe, and his gang of ne’er-do-wells. For entirely evil, selfish reasons, Dafoe kidnaps Lane. It’s then up to soldier, and ex-boyfriend, Michael Paré to head deep into biker territory and rescue her.
That’s it. Truthfully, you could write the plot on the back of a postage stamp. It’s almost videogame-like in its simplicity. And after all, there were plenty of eighties videogames where tough guys had to rescue their girlfriends from gangs of street thugs. Some enterprising game developer could have adapted Streets of Fire into a side scrolling beat ‘em up, chucked in a car level or two, and finished up with a faithful experience. Even the title comes ready-made to capture the eye of your average gamer.
The film’s simplicity is not a weakness though. It’s a strength. Sometimes, it’s refreshing to watch a movie where the plot isn’t endlessly twisting on itself. You could argue Streets of Fire is full of characters we’ve seen before: the tough hero, the damsel in distress, and the irredeemably evil bad guy to name just three. But in the context of the alternate world that Walter Hill has created, they work. Characters sometimes refer to where they’re living as a shit hole. But it looks like a great place to hang out. Sure, there might be trouble on most street corners, and there’s also a war briefly mentioned (which the film’s hero, Michael Paré, has just returned from), which hints at something maybe apocalyptic and even more dangerous than the city itself.
But there’s always a feeling that no matter what happens, eventually good will triumph over evil. Afterwards, you can enjoy a cup of coffee in the diner, then head over the street where everyone’s celebrating evil getting its ass kicked with an elaborate rock concert, glittering with neon and swirling with smoke, and lots of fist pumping the air to the beat of a soaring power ballad.
If, like me, you let Streets of Fire slip through the net (it was a pretty big flop, so I imagine it slipped through a lot of nets), have a soft spot for eighties movies, and can just about stomach the sight of Dafoe in rubber, you’ll get a kick out of what seems to be an underrated and largely forgotten film.