RETRO REVIEW – Tonight Is What it Means to Be Young: the Timeless Intensity of Walter Hill’s ‘Streets of Fire’
Welcome to the first installment in our revamped “Retro Reviews” column, where we explore both the movies you know and love, as well as the oft overlooked gems you should be spending more time with. To kick off this nerdy canonical carousal, we bring you the ultimate rock & roll fever dream, Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984)…
“Another Time. Another Place…”
This is the title card that opens Streets of Fire, Walter Hill’s absolutely bonkers “Rock & Roll Fable”. Blending the aesthetics of ’50s greaser gang films with the neon lit synths of ’80s arena rock, Hill creates a world that feels like a mirrored alternate dimension of our own. Streets of Fire is a teenager’s fever dream after taking acid and listening to too much Meat Loaf; our burly hero (Michael Paré) seeking his estranged, hair-tossing goddess of a lady love (Diane Lane), only to have her snatched away by a leathery lizard in patent leather overalls (Willem Dafoe) for the sole enjoyment of his nightmarish rulers of the city. Reality completely takes a backseat to aura-building, as Hill yet again confirms that pragmatism in filmmaking is truly overrated.
Believe it or not, what we’ve come to think of as ‘comic book filmmaking’ owes a huge debt to the late ’70s/early ’80s action output of Walter Hill. The most obvious example is The Warriors (1982), which found Hill molding New York City into an urban playground for his colorful, face-painted gangs. Hill’s portrayal of the baseball bat wielding hordes is cartoonish in the best way possible; a splash of ingenious pastiche that pops with jittery, panel-like transitions (which would later be overdone in the awful 2005 “Ultimate Director’s Cut”) and blasts of bone-crunching violence. Streets of Fire (1984) would be Hill’s second foray into all-out mélange, as he took the “look of the ’50s” and molded it with the “sound of the ’80s” (as the film’s awesome quad poster tells us), creating a sphere that would feel just as at home in four-color funny books as it does on the silver screen.
Riding in on the train with an absolute minimum of backstory, Tom Cody (Paré) is the prototypical Walter Hill protagonist. Screenwriters should take note when watching any of Hill’s films, as he keeps many of his leading men silent, letting their brute force often speak for them. It’s the very definition of “show, don’t tell”, and once Cody snatches that butterfly blade from a punk’s hand before slapping him across the face, we know more about him than a paragraph of exposition could ever hope to explain. While Paré is certainly wooden, there’s a beefy charm to his performance, as he brings a raw, grizzled physicality to Cody that allows us to believe in his blunt style of heroism. With Streets of Fire, Hill is working in big, bold archetypes, molding Cody into an almost mythic representation of “the good guy”. Though Paré can’t quite match the charisma of the marquee action stars Hill would use before and after (Bronson, Schwarzenegger, Willis), he more than makes the role his very own, for better or worse.
Diane Lane was an absolute punk rock princess in the early ’80s. Starting with Ladies and Gentlemen…the Fabulous Stains (1982), Lane became the early avatar for the “riot grrrl”, predating that musical movement by nearly a decade. Her sultry looks and rebel attitude would attract Francis Ford Coppola to cast her in his two S.E. Hinton adaptations (Rumble Fish and The Outsiders) the following year. But as Ellen Aim, the flaming sun Hill’s alternate universe revolves around, Lane transforms into Athena behind a microphone, belting out anthems that whip the mere mortals who admire her into a frenzy. The greatest moments in the movie come when Hill plays Streets of Fire like a straight-ahead musical, filming Ellen Aim and the Attackers with the kinetic sensibility of a concert videographer. Beyond wanting to immerse you in this world he’s created, Hill cements Ellen as a towering figure of rock iconography, and Lane completely throws herself into the performances, making you forget that it’s all lip-synching and choreography. These are intoxicating, rousing set pieces, handled with the same thundering skill Hill applied to the gun battles in 48 Hrs. (1982) or the back alley street fights in Hard Times (1975), and without Lane’s smoldering presence, they would fall flat on their face.
Snarling and sneering his way through the picture is Willem Dafoe, playing Raven, the sadistic leader of the Bombers — a feared gang pulled straight out of an AIP motorcycle picture. Yet Dafoe doesn’t go for Fonda, instead calling back to his own work in Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery’s The Loveless (1982), minus any semblance of the primal sexuality he exuded in that role. Covered in a coat of grease for the entire runtime of Streets of Fire, Dafoe is almost asexual in the way he slithers about Hill’s frame. Where Cody is the square-jawed soldier of fortune, Raven is his sinewy antithesis; a cold-blooded snake who looks more willing to cut Ellen Aim’s face off and wear it as a mask than go to bed with her. Were this a medieval fantasy, he’d be the fire-breathing dragon, swooping in to snatch away our lady fair, so that he can keep her in his mountainside dungeon for the rest of eternity.
Like all of his very best work, Hill fleshes out even the tiniest supporting parts with amazing talent. Though it made him famous the very same year, Rick Moranis gets to leave his nebbish Louis Tully persona behind, instead playing Ellen Aim’s manager and new beau, Billy Fish, as a smarmy wiseass. Amy Madigan all but steals the picture, punching Clyde the Bartender (Bill Paxton) in the face before hitching along for merc work with Cody. In a “blink and you’ll miss it” bit of casting, both Robert Townshend and Mykelti Williamson get to play soul brothers, singing and dancing their way through Dan Hartman’s “I Can Dream About You” before Ellen completely crushes the theme song in the film’s perfectly edited final moments. Scoring it all is Hill’s consummate musical guru, Ry Cooder, his electric slide guitar working overtime in-between Jim Steinman and Stevie Nicks penned numbers.
There will be some who reject Streets of Fire due to its inherent “dated” aesthetic and broad corniness. It’s a film that flies in the face of the “gritty realism” that has become en vogue in a post-Chris Nolan world. Naturalism doesn’t interest Walter Hill in the slightest, as he’s much more fascinated with attempting to harness the very nature of rock ‘n roll and youth itself. A stolen glance across the stage, two lovers embracing in the rain, a brutal street fight that acts as the ultimate showdown of “good vs. evil”; these characters operate in and communicate through universal gestures that help the story transcend time. Tonight is what it means to be young isn’t just some anthemic maxim that sends you out of the theater in a euphoric daze, it’s the very thesis of the film itself. Hill doesn’t just believe in the vigor of youth, he makes you feel it in your very core, until your foundation is shaking and tears well up in your eyes. Streets of Fire transports you not only to the world that’s been created, but to those moments in your life that helped set the pillars of who you are as a human being. It’s the first record you ever owned and the initial girl (or boy) you ever kissed. It’s the warm air you breathe once the final bell signals summer and the perfect cue that scored your first dance in high school. Youth is finite and fleeting, and whether you’re fourteen or forty, that’s a truth anyone can relate to. So let the revels begin, let the fire be started, we’re dancing for the desperate and the brokenhearted…
Tonight is what it means to be young. And before you know it…it’s gone.