A self-described “rock & roll fable” whose first image is of a music venue’s rainbow marquee blurrily reflected in a street puddle, Streets of Fire is a neo-noir spin on the rebellious teen pictures of the 1950s. Walter Hill’s 1984 film combines everything from seedy bars, street fights, motorcycles, beefy heavies, and tough dames in a smorgasbord of tawdry, moral-flouting clichés that distills decades of imagery that represents youth in cinema.
Chief among the film’s regurgitation of cultural touchstones is its use of rock music, witnessed here in a form still deeply tethered to its 1950s roots even as it engages with ’80s arena rock. Thus a rockabilly band tears through its numbers with punk speed, saxophones howling over triple-time shuffles, and a doo-wop group croons against programmed beats with a similar blend of organic swing and highly processed rhythms that the Time were using around the same period. Most bombastic are the songwriting contributions from Meatloaf collaborator Jim Steinman, who brings his patented orchestral barroom style to bear in rousing bookend tunes that marry piano singalongs with arena-sized production of drum triggers and power chords.
The music forms the undercurrent of a story that operates along typical hero’s quest details, with ex-soldier Tom (Michael Paré) chasing down singer and former flame Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) after she’s kidnapped by gangster Raven (Willem Dafoe, decked out in angular strips of latex and leather that make him look like a rebel from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis). Along the way, Tom receives help from McCoy (Amy Madigan), a mechanic and veteran who matches Tom in rough competence and terse confrontation. Though where Paré tends to speak in gruff, mumbled exchanges, Madigan plays the wiseguy, cracking jokes at the expense of friends and foes while showing off enough moxie and strength to back up her verbal jabs. Also along for the ride is Billy Fish (Rick Moranis), Ellen’s current paramour and manager. Moranis plays Fish as a complete slimeball, taking no small amount of pleasure in paying Tom to get his girl back for him even as his bristles with jealousy in the hero’s presence.
The violent hijinks that ensue throughout Streets of Fire serve largely as excuses for Hill to trot out various aesthetic devices, from a seemingly endless supply of color filters to an editing pattern that’s in sync with the propulsive rhythm of the soundtrack. The film’s climax, in which Tom and Raven fight with honest-to-God coal hammers, marks the peak of Hill’s goofy, comic-derived sense of action, an approach that regularly stretches all bounds of logic to go for the most dramatic, weighty form of combat.
In spite of the material’s inherent absurdity, Hill infuses it with the empathy and evocative characterization that defined his early and best work. Ducking the usual expectations of hero-and-damsel reconciliation, the film devotes much of its time to drawing the like-minded Tom and McCoy together, and it even shades in Fish beyond a skeevy older boyfriend, as his possessive jealousy is flecked with genuine affection and concern for Ellen. Hill also devotes a few brief glances to social issues, such as the weariness felt by the young for fighting their parents’ battles, evidenced by McCoy introducing herself as a soldier who only stopped fighting when she “ran out of wars.”
One moment in Streets of Fire even touches on the complex racial dynamics that infuse the social and commercial context of rock, when some cops (dressed in uniforms that feel more appropriate for the 1960s) stop the heroes under correct suspicion of arson, only to be immediately distracted by the very existence of a black doo-wop group whom they menace with brandished guns and clubs. In an otherwise upbeat, triumphant film, this small exchange speaks to levels of conflict in the fantasy city that run far deeper than the kidnapping antics of a deranged biker.
Streets of Fire has always looked a bit muted, even murky, on home video, and import Blu-rays edged too far in either the direction of excessive digital cleanup or too little image resuscitation. Happily, Shout! Factory's Blu-ray, sourced from a 2K restoration of the interpositive, fixes many of the issues that have long plagued the film. Though numerous instances of print damage are still visible, they're mostly easily overlooked instances of dirt and minor scratches. Far more important is how the transfer presents a considerably stable color palette; gone are the muddy textures of prior, standard-definition releases. A cleaned-up stereo mix cleanly reproduces the original theatrical audio, but the best track is a well-structured 5.1 mix sourced from 70mm six-track reels. The surround mix ably fills out the side channel with the soundtrack of songs and the constant roar of engines and violence while keeping dialogue cleanly separated in the foreground. Everything is sharp and clear, and for once the film can be played as loudly as it should be without brickwalling into compressed music or sound effects.
"Shotguns & Six-Strings" is a feature-length documentary that delves into the clout Hill held after 48 Hrs. and the director's decision to channel that mojo into this mad genre hybrid. Numerous members of the crew, as well as a few critics and historians, offer insights and anecdotes; the documentary covers the production so thoroughly that even first drafts of costume choices and props get discussed. "Rumble on the Lot: Walter Hill's Streets of Fire Revisited" is another feature-length piece that covers similar ground but includes enough unique stories and angles of analysis to be worth watching along with "Shotguns & Six-Strings." Less essential are some older featurettes that tackle the same core topics as the documentaries but for no more than a few minutes. The disc also includes music videos for some of the soundtrack's signature songs a trailer and on-air promos, and finally a still gallery of various press material from around the globe.
Walter Hill’s stylish rock n’ roll fable finally gets a home-video release worthy of purchase, sporting excellent video, flawless audio, and a bounty of well-sourced extras.