by Jacob Wingate-Bishop
“But I don’t hear any angels in the city. I don’t hear any holy choir sing…”
Walter Hill’s 1984 Streets of Fire had all it needed to be a bonafide, ‘80s classic; a deliciously brooding backdrop somewhere between Blade Runner and the Wild West, biker gangs, big hair, gun fights and an incredible soundtrack (featuring not one, but two epic compositions by Jim Steinman).
Described in the opening credits as a ‘rock ‘n roll fable’, it really is nothing but. Set in the fictional district of Richmond – a place that stinks of metal, crime and motorcycle diesel – a gang of bikers, The Bombers (led by Willem Dafoe’s Raven Shaddock) kidnap a popular rock singer, Ellen Aim (Diane Lane). A former flame of hers, protagonist and gunslinger Tom Cody (Michael Paré) is called in to bring her back, and end the Bombers’ sadistic grip on the city for good.
Director Hill wanted the film to be a ‘comic book movie’ without the source material actually being a comic. And that certainly worked out with Streets of Fire. There’s shades of Akira throughout, with homages to Grease and The Outsiders. From the first neon-lit diner we see, we know what kind of tale it will tell. One that ends in switchblades, leather and bloodshed. It’s a real neo-noir western, echoing Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and even series like the ‘90s’ Cowboy Bebop in every slicked-back maverick. Let me put it this way: it’s not hard to see that this came out only half a decade after Mad Max.
Our main man, Cody, meanwhile, is a cross between Brendan Fraser and Nathan Fillion’s ‘Mal’ Reynolds from Firefly – though Streets… came out way before The Mummy. Sure, the characters here are somewhat of a trope, but nevertheless, it’s a 90-minute, dystopian swashbuckler, full of emotion, thrills and a whole lot of fire. Seriously, nearly every vehicle you see on screen meets its end in a plume of smoke at some point. It’s The Warriors on acid.
There’s no shortage of catchy numbers, too. It’s a musical after all, as much as any wild western, noir thriller or blockbuster wannabe. Almost every scene is accompanied with infectious, 1950s’ rock ‘n roll. The impetus of the whole movie, after all, is the kidnapping of a renowned rock musician. And the fusion of climactic fight scenes with Queen-esque concert performances is an interesting one.
As Walter Hill himself explained, ‘I put in all the things I thought were great… custom cars, kissing in the rain, neon, trains in the night, high-speed pursuit, rumbles, rock stars, motorcycles, jokes in tough situations, leather jackets and questions of honor’. And you know what? Regardless of whether it was a box office success or not (indeed, it made scarcely half its budget back when released), it really does pack all that and more. It’s a cliché tale. The acting is hammy at times. There are more explosions than there has any right to be.
But the movie is a visual spectacle, a western fable of smirking mavericks and cruel, gunslingin’ tyrants. Its romantic centerpiece is executed perfectly and the world within feels so real. All these years later, Streets of Fire feels like that rock and roll epic the world has yet to truly see.