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Streets of Fire (1984)

Nostalgia to the Rescue!

Until this morning, I hadn't watched Streets of Fire all the way through since I was a kid. I've seen parts of it--even most of it--over the years. But at some point, the urge to do something else always won out. That's not the greatest recommendation for one of my favorite films, so maybe I should explain further.

Walter Hill's self-described "Rock and Roll Fable" is a bizarre, compelling disaster whose earnestness also makes it great. Set in "another time, another place", the movie stars Diane Lane as Ellen Aim, the lead singer of The Attackers. With the cosmic-passion vocals of Bonnie Tyler* and the stylistic sensibilities of Jem (and Bonnie Tyler), she belts out sappy, stardust rock operas like "Tonight is What It Means to Be Young" and "Nowhere Fast" to a sold-out crowd in her hardscrabble hometown of Richmond.

"Nowhere Fast" opens the movie with a pseudo-Shakespearian narrative flair: the lyrics describing a jilted lover who reluctantly returns home to save an old flame from danger effectively summarize the film's plot. As Ellen closes the song with a damn-the-man fist-pump, an army of savage bikers rushes the stage and drags her off into the night. Watching from the streets (which are not yet on fire) is Reva Cody (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), the sister of Ellen's ex-boyfriend, Tom (Michael Paré). She fires off a telegram and, within a day, her little brother rides into town.

The meat of the film takes place during one, long night and sees Tom gathering a disparate crew of losers to help him rescue Ellen from the bikers. Among them are Ellen's current boyfriend/manager, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis), a nomadic soldier-for-hire named McCoy (Amy Madigan), and a quartet of black blues singers called The Sorels (two of whom are played by Robert Townsend and Mykelti Williamson). Together, they infiltrate a trashy club and blow up several motorcycles--all leading to a showdown between Tom and the gang's leader, Raven (Willem Dafoe).

You may think the movie I've just described doesn't actually exist. But it does, and is as ridiculous as it sounds. Every scene includes at least one actor (in roles both significant, small, and uniformly weird) who would go on to really big careers: even Ed Begley Jr. and Bill Paxton pop up as an opportunistic homeless man and a goofy bartender, respectively. Half the fun of Streets of Fire is playing "Spot the Celebrity".

The other half is plugging your ears and chanting "La la la la la" for ninety minutes as the actors manage to butcher Hill and co-writer Larry Gross's dialogue while also stumbling over it. It's a toss-up as to whether the writing or the delivery is worse. Each line sounds like something an eight-year-old would dream up for a tough-and-tragic antihero--which is probably why I loved the movie growing up. Today, I can't drink anything while watching Streets of Fire because every word that comes out of these people's mouths compels a spit take.

Only Dafoe makes it out okay, though he can't seem to decide if his character is a Southern good-ol'-boy who got transplanted to the inner city or an androgynous, greaser warlord who's perfectly comfortable wearing nothing under a black, leather apron (making his interest in Ellen Aim seem a little...odd).

So, how can I, in good conscience, highly recommend a movie with terrible acting, a cornball story, and more silly music montages than the average episode of One Tree Hill? Easily. I proudly wear my "loved it as a child" bias on my sleeve, and have come to enjoy the great discomfort with which I shout down the inner voice that tells me how awful everything is.

From an unbiased perspective, there's a lot to admire here. This movie feels like no other movie. Hill and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo bathe everything in watery neon pinks, greens, and oranges. A fine layer of scum smears every frame, like a print of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" dropped in a Detroit sewer.

Tom's climactic fight with Raven is also the stuff of legend. In one of the film's few daylight scenes, the two men square off between rival factions of cops mixed with locals and a horde of motor-criminals. What begins as an odd duel with large, metal hammers ends in a bare-knuckle throwdown that feels as authentic as the dialogue feels phony.

Streets of Fire's real triumph, though, is Tom and Ellen's love story. You'd need a deep-space telescope to locate the actors' chemistry, but their characters' doomed relationship is genuinely touching and surprising, and makes for one of my all-time-favorite good-byes. People with no exposure to the film will no doubt find all of this campy and probably unwatchable. But Hill and company are achingly sincere, and their movie is like the box of epic, teenage love letters one might keep in the basement: full of raw feeling, utterly lacking in perspective, and an embarrassing but crucial reminder of what it means to be young.

*Actually, Fire, Inc. performed the film's key songs--but it's hard not to think of Tyler when Aim takes the stage.

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