I need to watch more Walter Hill films.
I’m not kidding; the amount of Hill films I have seen is embarrassingly low (good luck trying to get me to admit the number viewed). This great shame is brought on even more lately with the release of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver (Hill’s 1978 crime thriller The Driver was a huge inspiration for Wright) and the recent releases of his newest film The Assignment and of course, Shout Factory’s recent blu-ray release of Streets of Fire.
Tom Cody (Michael Paré) is fresh out of the military when he receives notice from his big sister that his former love Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), an explosive singer on the rise, has been kidnapped by a biker gang led by Raven (Willem Dafoe). He brings Ellen’s manager/current boyfriend, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis), and a new pal, McCoy (Amy Madigan), to the trenches with him to rescue Ellen, all while facing the wrath of Raven and his obsession with chaos.
I love when a movie’s history plays a huge part into the final product. It’s not a rarity when that happens, but sometimes we all know that the backstory of a film’s production isn’t very controversial or lacking in substantial drama. Streets of Fire’s history doesn’t have huge piles of either controversy or drama, but it’s nonetheless fascinating. Hill and co-writer Larry Gross had just released 48 Hours, which was a monster hit for Paramount. That film gave Hill and Gross a free pass to basically make whatever they wanted. Streets of Fire was Hill’s answer to the two Francis Ford Coppola films that came out in 1983 – Rumble Fish and The Outsiders – both featuring teenage groups trying to get by. Streets of Fire began as a bidding war between the major studios, in which Universal came out on top. And the studio paid top dollar to give Hill what he wanted: an epic story that would appeal to the angst of a teenager. But unlike Coppola’s films, he wanted the visuals to be the star.
The desire to create a visual spectacle is obvious, and damn wonderful. Cinematographer Andrew Laszlo helped bring Hill’s want to life, and, as displayed on the Shout Select blu-ray, the colors pop and bounce and rise up like a fist of bravado. Unlike his work with Hill on The Warriors, Laszlo took advantage of the filmmaker’s wish to create a soundstage in L.A. that resembled Chicago (instead of actually filming in Chicago – one of the many aspects that caused them to go over budget). With total creative freedom to light a city as they wanted, they gave every location a personality of neon lights, brooding shadows, and so forth. Hill’s dream to showcase the teenage melodrama through impressive visuals was certainly obtained, but there was also doubt elsewhere – mainly with the script.
Mumbles here and there were that the script Hill and Gross put together wasn’t very strong. Producer Joel Silver paid them no mind, completely on board with shooting a film with a strong enough look that it would overshadow the weaker story elements (Can we count this as a “shrug the shoulders” moment?). The script for Streets of Fire isn’t a wonder, but it’s no slouch either. The story, the decisions that drive the action – none of it was new even back in 1984. Hill had a vision of creating a comic book hero for teenagers that wasn’t like your traditional comic book hero. Tom Cody was supposed to connect as the ultimate hero (although there’s a brief moment that’s very un-hero like), and if Streets of Fire had been a hit, it would’ve spawned a trilogy based on the character. We’ll get to the end results in a moment, but the bottom line here is the screenplay -the foundation that every movie is based on – wasn’t solid. Not enough attention was paid to the shaping of its rock, but a good amount of love was given to the dialogue at least. A lot of the conversations and snappy comebacks, mostly given by Moranis and Madigan, are crisp enough to enjoy.
After filming finished, the executives at Universal viewed the cut we all know today and…they weren’t too impressed. They felt the hero and the greaser-villain paid second fiddle to the look of the film, and, feeding off of their bad vibes, Streets of Fire was a flop when it was released. Joel Silver famously joked about the film’s tagline “Tonight is what it means to be young” saying, “Tonight is what it means to be dead” after seeing the opening weekend figures. Many aspects were blamed, from not shooting in Chicago to not getting Tom Cruise to play Tom Cody (they really wanted Tom Cruise). Bottom line, it just wasn’t appreciated at the time. It was seen as a mash up of genres and films that had done it better before it. It broke Gross’s heart, and Hill had to succumb to making Brewster’s Millions, and a few more films before getting his groove back. It stopped a power duo in their tracks.
The fine folks over at Shout Factory paid history no mind, and gave Streets of Fire the deluxe blu-ray treatment. And you know what? It deserves it. As I mentioned earlier, I haven’t seen a lot of Walter Hill films, and regardless I consider myself lucky tonight after watching this. If this is what middle-tier Walter Hill is considered to be, then his filmography is going to be fun to go through. I’ve heard that his films are all at face value: what you see is what you get. Nothing too deep, but nothing too flat. Some people have a problem with that, but why?
From what I’ve seen, Hill just wants to entertain his audience, and that’s what Streets of Fire is: pure entertainment. It manages to provide a level of intensity without being violent (huge side note: had no idea this was rated PG until it was over). The now-legendary soundtrack is spectacular, as well as any moment in the film that’s focused on just the music. Can you believe Hill never directed scenes of music like this beforehand? I can’t. The opening number especially is mesmerizing. Paré and Dafoe come giftwrapped in typical character troupes but, by god, they make it work. The moment when the two meet for the first time made my jaw drop at the coolness of it all, and that’s thanks due to their performances. The film has a fine ensemble, including Moranis, and this is honestly the first time I’ve ever seen him play the unlikeable guy. It was crazy to see that! Streets of Fire doesn’t have the best script, and the visuals are evidently more in focus than a lot of the other aspects, but make no mistake, Hill knew what he was doing here. As the film states in the beginning, it’s a rock-and-roll fable: a vinyl record featuring a plot of a good guy versus a whole lot of bad guys on bikes, campy lost love, and a wonderfully edited final fight. Now that I think about it, Streets of Fire is unconditional ’80s love, and it very much deserves its appreciation.
And now, to decide which Walter Hill film to watch next….