The Best Movie You Never Saw: Streets of Fire

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at STREETS OF FIRE.

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THE STORY: Tom Cody (Michael Pare), a soldier of fortune, returns home to rescue his former girlfriend, rock star Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), who’s been kidnapped by a gang of bikers led by the psychotic Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe).

THE PLAYERS: Michael Pare, Diane Lane, Willem Dafoe, Amy Madigan, Rick Moranis. Directed by Walter Hill. Produced by Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver (DIE HARD, LETHAL WEAPON, and pretty much every other great eighties action movie).

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THE HISTORY: STREETS OF FIRE is in some ways a product of the success of 48 HRS, which was a surprise mega-hit in 1982. It launched the career of star Eddie Murphy,, but it made the creative team behind it, including director Walter Hill, co-writer Larry Gross, and producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver, hot properties. Wanting to crank out another hit, I’m sure they figured STREETS OF FIRE couldn’t miss. After all, the mid-eighties were the heyday of MTV, and this was to be a music-driven action movie with songs by Jim Steinman, who had two smash hits in 1983, a year before this hit theaters, with Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ and Air Supply’s ‘Making Love Out of Nothing at All.’ With a solid $14.5 million dollar budget, Hill was able to make something not unlike his own THE WARRIORS, setting it in a non-distinct city in an obscure time period that seems to be patterned after the fifties, albeit with a huge dose of eighties new wave mixed-in (or as the pre-credits title card says, “Another time, another place”).

“Larry and I wrote it with the idea we were doing a musical fantasy... We wrote it and began production when there was no MTV. By the time it came out, always a problem with movies, the movie was damned as the first MTV movie and condemned... I think we tripped into something which was you could set up - I was always fascinated. The audience will go with you when you set up an abstract world with teenage values and play out a drama within this. It was kind of real but it wasn't really. I always said whenever someone says fantasy they immediately think of more Disney--esque. The idea of a hard hitting drama in a fantasy world, that was kind of different at the time... People asked me about STREETS OF FIRE, I always thought of it as a musical. They kind of saw it worked in the world of an MTV video” - DGA Walter Hill Interview, excerpted on Wikipedia

streets of fire diane lane michael pare

They had a hot cast, with Michael Pare coming off EDDIE & THE CRUISERS and doing his best Robert Mitchum as the tough guy hero Tom Cody. Eighteen-year-old Diane Lane was also a rising star at the time, coming-off back-to-back Francis Ford Coppola movies, THE OUTSIDERS and RUMBLE FISH (with a third – THE COTTON CLUB – also in the making). Given how big movies like FLASHDANCE and FOOTLOOSE were at the time, both of them “kinda-sorta” musicals like this, you can’t blame Hill and company for their ambitions. Not only would this have tons of pop music, but it had action! It wound up being a giant flop, only grossing $8.1 million at the box office. Nevertheless, it became a cult hit on VHS and one of the songs from the soundtrack (Dan Hartman’s ‘I Can Dream About You’) became a top 10 hit in North America, although at the time I bet most people didn't realize it was actually off a soundtrack album.

WHY IT'S GREAT: Say what you will about STREETS OF FIRE, but it’s unique. How many action/musicals can you think of? Zero, right? Even in an era dominated by music videos, this must have seemed bold, but throughout his career, Hill’s always been one to push the envelope – something which continues to this day with his recent (RE)ASSIGNMENT generating copious amounts of press out of TIFF (read my not-so-positive review). Hill’s always had a kind of comic book aesthetic, and I think STREETS OF FIRE is his most fully realized project in that regard, from the production design to the characters.

“I think I thought I could handle things. Didn't know how to shoot music. Music had been important in my films, it was usually post production. This was tough stuff to shoot. I already had a great respect for people like Minnelli. I just couldn't seem to work it out without just putting up multiple cameras and shooting an awful lot of film... I later realized or talked to people about this and MGM in the old days everybody was on contract and they would rehearse for weeks. We don't get that. We would stage it and shoot it. We got the songs a lot of times just a few days before we shoot. We only get the final song. The structural advantage of the old studio system we didn't have. It made a very inefficient shoot. I don't think there was any other way to do it given the circumstances.” - DGA Walter Hill Interview, excerpted on Wikipedia

streets of fire willem dafoe

Michael Pare and Willem Dafoe are particularly interesting in this, with each giving heightened performances that might have rubbed audiences the wrong way in 1984, but seem prescient now given the modern dominance of the comic book film. Pare in particular should have become a much bigger star, but the eighties were not really an era for the kind of cynical, low-key hero he’s playing here. Audiences either went for square-jawed, classic Harrison Ford types or musclemen like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Pare is like Michael Biehn in that regard. Both would have probably had much bigger careers if they had come along twenty-years later.

STREETS OF FIRE was also an early shot at stardom for Diane Lane, who’s impossibly gorgeous as rock star Ellen Aim. While she didn’t do her own singing, she lip-synchs like a pro, and looks terrific in Aim’s far-out New Wave outfits. Another great performance is given here by Amy Madigan, who hasn’t acted too much in recent years but was a terrific, earthy leading-lady at the time (check her out in UNCLE BUCK or FIELD OF DREAMS). She steals a whole lot of scenes as Pare’s sidekick, a gunslinger named McCoy, who was apparently written as a man until Madigan came along. Rick Moranis is also cast against-type in a more cynical role than usual as Aim’s boyfriend/manager, and he seems like a vessel for Hill to make some sly commentary on the state of the music business, with him valuing money above all things – even if he – natch – turns out to be an OK guy in the end.

streets of fire michael pare willem dafoe

It helps that STREETS OF FIRE is an insanely propulsive flick, with Hill and his three editors keeping the thing rolling along like a freight train throughout its ninety-three minute running time. Hill also manages to sprinkle in some impressive action set pieces, including Cody’s raid on the biker hangout, his opening fisticuffs battle with some knife-wielding thugs that try to rob his sister (THE WARRIORS’ Deborah Van Valkenburgh) and best of all, the epic sledgehammer fight finale.

“You gotta realize that, out of the whole cast, nobody was over thirty. Diane Lane was, I think, eighteen. It was an enormous Hollywood production. My manager had me hire a limousine to pick me up at home and take me to work. I was like, "Jesus, this is incredible. This is... Hollywood. The real Hollywood. The Hollywood they make movies about."... It was scary. And Walter isn't the kind of guy who works well with kids. He's a cowboy. He's like John Ford. "Don't ask me how to act! I'm a director!" – Michael PareAin’t It Cool News interview

streets of fire diane lane

BEST SCENE: Hill did a really good job making the Ellen Aim numbers feel MTV ready, and the movie has an absolutely terrific pre-credits opening, with Lane in full rock-star mode lip-synching to the catchy ‘Nowhere Fast’ while baddie Dafoe and his crew (including punk band Fear’s Lee Ving) plan to snatch her. Look for Bill Paxton in a small part as one of the guys who tries to rescue Aim from her attackers.

SEE IT: STREETS OF FIRE is out on DVD as well as R2 Blu-ray. It also shows up on most streaming services from time-to-time.

PARTING SHOT: It’s nice that STREETS OF FIRE has picked up some kind of cult following over the years (I actually saw it on 35mm a couple of years ago here in Montreal), but not enough people have heard of it. It’s a really cool little eighties gem, and a good entrée into some of Hill’s more obscure (but great) works like EXTREME PREJUDICE and JOHNNY HANDSOME. For what it’s worth, star Michael Pare is still doing good work, having had a cameo in the recent BONE TOMAHAWK, a solid part as Barry Seal in THE INFILTRATOR, and a starring role in our own John Fallon’s THE SHELTER. As for Diane Lane, she’s still impossibly beautiful. I guess some things never change.

Source: JoBlo.com



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