Streets of Fire Review
Following the huge commercial success of 48 Hrs, Walter Hill was able to do just about anything he liked. In these circumstances, it seems rather odd that what he chose to do was a day-glo rock and roll fantasy with a peculiarly diverse song score and a cast of semi-unknowns. However, when you actually watch the film, all becomes clear. Streets of Fire is, like most of Hill’s work, a Western in disguise with the sort of simple plot, tough characters, and streamlined action that the director always responds to, and it works surprisingly well.
The film is set in an anonymous city at an unspecified time which is a cross between the 1950s and the near-future. When a concert by Ellen Aim (Lane) and the Attackers is interrupted and the lead singer is kidnapped, her ex-boyfriend Tom Cody (Pare) goes to look for her. He’s accompanied by a tough-talking veteran soldier McCoy (Madigan) and Billy Fish (Moranis), Ellen’s manager. This brings him into confrontation with Ellen’s kidnapper, Raven (Dafoe), the leader of the Bombers motorcycle gang and the stage is set for a classic Western showdown.
It really is a very straightforward plot, and this seems to have been intentional. Hill wanted to make a film that he would have found irresistible as a teenager and it’s very obvious that the movie’s “cool” factor is far more important that what it’s actually about. Hill’s films have always been visually interesting but this takes the emphasis on image to an extreme and it’s not surprising that he’s never been tempted to do anything similar again. The cinematography by Andrew Laszlo is obsessed with colour and its reflection on surfaces, and the predominantly dark lighting is an extension of the work that he and Hill did on The Warriors. Equally, the design of the film is very stylised with the almost apocalyptic wastelands shot in the suburbs of Chicago contrasting with the costumes and art direction which often seem to be indebted to the fashions of the 1950s. Also jarring, deliberately one assumes, is the collection of songs on the soundtrack which are usually defiantly products of the 1980s with Jim Steinman’s absurdly convoluted lyrics looming large and the black group The Sorels, who sing beautifully, are required to sing anodyne AOR nonsense. I will make an exception for the splendid rockabilly group The Blasters who make a strong impression, partly by being allowed to sing live on screen rather than be dubbed.
That the film works is down to two major factors. Firstly, the visceral energy of Hill’s direction which speeds the narrative by so fast that you’re too busy gawping to stop and think too hard about the sometimes ludicrous turn of events . A lot of credit for this is also due to the editors, a team including Hill’s regular collaborator Freeman Davis. Secondly, the actors do a good job with dialogue which is aiming for a kind of mythic grandeur but doesn’t always get there. Diane Lane and Michael Pare make a convincing couple as Tom and Ellen, both realising that the way they look is far more important than their sometimes unsavoury characters, and Pare in particular does some of his best work. Lane is reasonably convincing when she mimes to the songs but can’t do much with her irritating character. Rick Moranis is sometimes funny and sometimes annoying as the loud-mouthed manager but it’s interesting to see him developing the character tics which he then proceeded to profit from for the next twenty years. Not for the first time in a Walter Hill film, the secondary lead gives the best performance – Amy Madigan is so tough and funny that you wish the film was all about her rather than Tom and Ellen. Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe broods and poses with such inimitable style that it’s not surprising that he ended up becoming the biggest star.
Second Sight have become the go-to guys for Walter Hill’s work on Blu-Ray after their superb discs of Southern Comfort and The Long Riders, and Streets of Fire does little to dent their reputation.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and looks rather lovely. It’s a difficult movie to transfer given the extreme visual stylisation and Second Sight have done a nice job. The litmus test is the colour of course and these succeed magnificently in recreating the vividness of the 35mm print that I have seen projected. This transfer certainly has a strong film grain which is characteristic of the original material and while the detail is not always as strong as one might like, the depth is generally pleasing. Small elements of damage are present here and there but on the whole, this is such a big step-up from the horrible DVD transfer that fans of the film really shouldn’t hesitate.
The original stereo mix of the film is the default option and it sounds excellent in a lossless track. The music dominates throughout and is often very loud – when I saw the film in the cinema I remember it being nearly deafening – but the sparse dialogue track comes across nicely as well. There is also a 5.1 track which is presumably sourced from the 70mm 6 track mix and fills the surrounds very effectively with some pounding moments from the LFE.
The extras consist of a lengthy documentary, the original electronic press kit for the film and two music videos. The videos are little to write about, although if you like the songs - Tonight is What it Means to be Young and I Can Dream About You - then you might feel more enthusiastic. The electronic press kit is a collection of featurettes which are a little bland but interesting for the amount of archive material they present and I liked the interviews with Hill and Laszlo. Also included are the original teaser trailer and three brief TV promotional spots.
The key extra feature is however Rumble on the Lot, a new eighty-minute retrospective produced by Robert Fischer, the controlling force behind Fiction Factory, a German company which has been consistently providing some of the best making-of material currently available. Although there aren’t too many participants, those involved are frank and honest about the film. Walter Hill dominates the proceedings, quite rightly, but there’s also interesting contributions from Michael Pare, Amy Madigan and the art director James Allen, the latter pointing out that the film is like a graphic novel ten years ahead of its time. I hadn’t realised that the film was quite such a failure at the box office or with critics but it’s obvious that its cult following has become larger over the years.
There are, regrettably, no subtitles offered. The disc is locked to Region B.
I enjoyed seeing Streets of Fire again and this Blu-Ray transfer certainly gives it a new lease of life. With its good transfer, solid extras and frankly excellent cover design, this Second Sight disc is definitely recommended.