I almost turned off Streets of Fire after the opening titles. The gorgeous Diane Lane, as rockstar Ellen Aim, kicks it off with a fast-paced, Bonnie Tyler-ish number. The crowd is so pumped up they don’t notice the motorcycle gang that has infiltrated the theatre. Meanwhile, backstage, motherfuckin Rick Moranis is sneering, complaining that no one in this packed house has two dimes to rub together. As soon as the song ends Raven, the leader of the bikers (a heavily made up Willem Dafoe) cries out for attack. They easily breach the stage and he scoops up Ellen. The only person who really tries to stop them is, oh my God, it’s Bill Paxton! But he gets punched in the face and goes down fast. After causing all sorts of mayhem, the gang takes off with their prisoner. A young woman stares after them. Her expression says: we need a hero. But, if it’s not Bill Paxton, who the hell can take these bikers down?! The young woman, Reva, sends a telegram to her brother Tom Cody (Michael Paré)— “Come home. I need you.” He rides in on the train (clearly the El in Chicago–the scenes of the biker gang running wild outside the club appeared to be shot in Chicago too, under the tracks. I’m from the Chicago area and I’m always excited to see it in a movie). By the way, the opening credits are still not finished. So Cody swaggers into his sister’s diner, with a badass 5 o’clock shadow and wearing a duster, where she’s being harassed (but totally holding her own) by some lesser bike gang. Cody steps up to take them down. He slips off his duster. He is wearing suspenders and a denim shirt with the sleeves ripped off. Then he slaps–yes, slaps–the shit out of the gang leader. And I. am. LOVING IT.
This is when I almost turned it off. Clearly director Walter Hill already blew his load (to put it crassly, sorry). Everything up until this point is absolutely perfect, and there’s simply no way the rest of the movie can keep this momentum going. I check out Hill’s credentials. When he made Streets of Fire, he already had the cult classic The Warriors under his belt and had just come off the mega-hit 48 Hours with Eddie Murphy. Okay, this guy has some chops. And… hold on. Wikipedia is telling me that Streets is inspired by the Bruce Springsteen song of the same name. Bruce’s song was actually going to be in the movie, until he found out they wanted to record someone else singing it, and he was like “Aw hell naw.” Hmm. Well, okay. I’ll keep watching, Walter Hill. If only to see more of Bill Paxton and find out if your hunky lead can act (no).
So, how does Streets do? Pretty well. The chances of topping those first 15 minutes were slim. Streets doesn’t quite make it, but it sure has a lot of fun trying. Cody teams up with an ex soldier, McCoy (Amy Madigan), and Ellen’s current boyfriend, the Evil Rick Moranis (does not compute) and they go to rescue Ellen from Raven. Willem Dafoe is wearing some sort of vinyl overalls with a very low-cut bib and so much damn make up! Ellen is tied to a bed and Willem tells her if she’ll play nice for a few weeks and let him have sexual relations with her, he’ll eventually let her go. I kind of thought there’d be more significant end-game than that. Not that it wouldn’t be fucking horrible for Ellen, but I thought he might have a grandiose plan. Like, kidnapping hometown heroine Ellen Aim will bring the city to its knees! And my gang will rule the streets! Bwahaha! Or that they had a prior relationship, or that we’d see some evidence that he had a crazy obsession with her. Nope. He just really, really wants to do it with her.
The good guys sneak up on the gang’s hang out and McCoy goes inside while Cody sets up some sniper action outside. Michael Paré sounds like Sylvester Stallone, by the way. So… inside the bar, there’s a chick stripping in an A.C. Slater-style belly t-shirt and one of those high-rise thongs that I guess was a popular underwear choice in the 80’s and in Danzig music videos. The stripper is confusing. She’s dancing very aggressively. I can’t see her face at first and, before they reveal Ellen tied to the bed, I think maybe it’s her, and they’ve cut her hair and are forcing her to dance. We spend so much time with the stripper she must play a larger part–she was Raven’s ex and will have some beef with Ellen as she’s pushed aside, or she’ll be some badass adversary for McCoy or Ellen, or she’s a prisoner and she’ll help the good guys escape, but nope. I guess Walter Hill just thought she had a dynamite act and we needed to see like 4 minutes of her dancing. Whatever.
Cody starts taking out the dudes who are drag racing on their motorcycles outside, and by that I mean he shoots the motorcycles and they BLOW UP. Even if he shoots out the tires and they just crash into a wall, they immediately burst into flame. I am really pleased Streets exists in one of those movie universes where the slightest mishap causes all vehicles to explode. It’s amazing. Just one after the other, boom boom boom. He also shoots part of the building and the entire thing blows up. Cody is super pleased with himself until Raven casually walks out and is all “I’m gonna getcha” and then strolls back into the wreckage.
And then then they rescue Ellen and try to sneak back home and she and Cody are all fighting in that way that you know they really love each other and I get bored. They make it back. Cody rejects the money Evil Rick offered him to rescue Ellen. Ellen chases him into the rain and they make out and then do it. She wants them to run away together, but he knows things will never work out for them. So, naturally, he tricks her into thinking they’re going to ride the El into the sunset, but when they’re on the train he actually just punches her out (WHAT?), tells McCoy to take care of her, and goes to face off with Raven.
The showdown with Raven is pretty good. They fight with giant hammers. Willem Dafoe is making some crazy faces, and then he screams and charges Cody, and HOLY SHIT HE IS BAT BOY! Anyway, Cody wins. Hooray.
The movie ends with two musical numbers. The first is “I Can Dream About You,” which I freaking love. I had no idea it was from this movie. So thank you, Streets of Fire, for gifting that song to us. (Why does everyone say “gifting” all of a sudden, by the way? Has anyone else noticed this? It sounds really smug to me.) The big closing number, where Ellen sings to a departing Cody (they come from two different worlds, Evil Rick will know how to take care of her, etc.) is a disappointment. It’s not even close to “Nowhere Fast,” nor the song “Streets of Fire,” which is what Ellen was originally meant to sing. The song, “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young,” really, really, really wants to have the gravity of a Bruce Springsteen song, but it falls short in a big way. It has a lot of the ingredients–slow build up, lyrics about angels and beaches and men and boys and crying, stop your crying, and hold on cause we’re still young all we got is tonight!–but it doesn’t become more than a sum of its parts, the way a Springsteen song does. Anyone can write cheesy lyrics about wrapping your legs round these velvet rims, but Springsteen infused those early albums with something genuine, something desperate and tragic and poignant and fucking magic. If you don’t know me well you probably think I’m kidding, because I think to a lot of people, he’s become a flag-waving joke, just an old white guy singin’ ’bout how much he loves America. But I tell you that Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town are two of the best albums I have ever heard. They’re about growing up, about making hard decisions, about your dreams not coming true. Anger and sadness, being trapped in a shithole town. It’s about the way the movie ends, not with Cody and Ellen in each other’s arms, but Cody walking away from the woman he loves. So, as easy as it might seem to write a Springsteen-type ballad, it was just never going to happen. It was a good try, though. Hey. Go listen to some fucking Springsteen, alright?
A final note– a lot of vaguely familiar faces from my childhood popped up in Streets. Lynne Thigpen (a.k.a. The Chief on the TV game show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, and the D.J. in The Warriors) is an El Train driver. Elizabeth Daily (a.k.a. Dottie from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) tags along with the group for a while (I feel like she must have had some larger purpose to the plot but it was cut out. Otherwise there is absolutely no reason for her to be there). Lee Ving (Mr. Body from Clue) is Raven’s #2 guy. A young cop is played by the young man who romanced Daryl Hannah with Steve Martin’s words in Roxanne (I kind of doubt anyone else remembers that movie but I loved it as a kid). Ed Begley Jr. jumped out of the darkness and talked for a while but I completely zoned out during that part so I have no clue what his role was. Am I good at reviewing movies or what?