Thursday, 20 December 2012

Streets of Fire (1984)

I make a habit of having a go-to "sad movie" -- not a movie that is sad, but a movie I watch when I am sad, because it will make me happy. For many years, my "sad movie" was Pretty In Pink. Recently, however, Streets of Fire (Walter Hill, 1984) has usurped the niche Pretty In Pink once occupied as my all-natural upper of choice. Whatever you think of the relative cinematic value of Streets of Fire, I challenge anyone to watch it and not come away feeling better about life.

Duel of the fates.
Rock starlet Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) plays a gig in her tough-as-nails hometown and is immediately kidnapped by Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe) and his motorcycle gang. Luckily, diner waitress Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) won't permit such injustice: she summons her out-of-town brother Tom (Michael Pare) to Ellen's aid. Tom descends upon town in a fancy car, getting into verbal or physical fisticuffs with virtually everyone he meets, but somehow finds a willing sidekick in the butch-cute McCoy (Amy Madigan). Reva and Ellen's manager/lover, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis), convince Tom to rescue Ellen -- it doesn't hurt that the price is right, nor that Ellen is an old flame of Tom's. Exactly how Tom, McCoy, and Billy prise Ellen from Raven's clutches is a story too convoluted to detail here. Suffice it to say that when they touch down in the diner, Ellen in tow, they've blown up half the town and are followed by an entourage consisting of a bleached-out, coked-out Ellen Aim groupie and a handful of down-on-their-luck doo-wop singers. Raven attempts to take revenge, of course, but Tom puts him in his place with a sledgehammer and Ellen lives to play another show and continue with her tour.

I hesitate to call Streets of Fire "so bad it's good". It's bombastic, paratactic, melodramatic, utterly unnecessary, totally unrealistic, terrifyingly random and brain-squishingly stupid. But it's not bad. Quite the contrary. How? Why? A, because the mise-en-scene is gorgeous. B, because every performer gives 150% in this movie. This is something that can be hilarious in B-movies where the combined cast is as talented as a high school football mascot, but several of Streets of Fire's actors are exceptional talents who went on to fame and/or fortune. Van Valkenburgh, with her haunted-eyed, autumnal beauty, could have done Chekhov; and here she is doing Streets of Fire instead! C, because the script makes room for four major female characters, three of whom are not even interested in boinking our hero. Passes the Bechtel Test and then some. D, because the soundtrack, holy fuck the soundtrack. You didn't even know this movie existed, but you already have several of the songs it popularized irreversibly seared into your memory. "I can dream about you, if I can't hold you tonight...." yeah, that's Streets of Fire. (Jim Steinman composed most of Ellen Aim's music; if you don't know who that is, here's a reference).

As for the script, well, it's not particularly polished. The characters are needlessly at each others' throats; no one ever says "yes" or "no" where a "fine, dickhead" or "fuck you!" can be substituted.  Also, situations escalate into physical violence with a clockwork regularity that is both stupid and transcendentally beautiful. I will say, though, that despite the schoolyard trash-talk and the hair-trigger tempers, a weird grace eventually surfaces in the relationship between Tom and Ellen. When he bids Ellen goodbye with a smile and tells McCoy, "we were just going in different directions, it's nobody's fault", it's a moment of refreshing emotional maturity in the midst of so much 80s action schlock. (This line does come mere minutes after Tom socks Ellen out cold to keep her from getting in his way, so take that with a grain of salt, I guess).

To sum up Streets of Fire's selling points: there is a Jim Steinman soundtrack. There is kissing in the rain. There is a sledgehammer duel. There is a doo-wop quartet. There is everything you need to shake even the most killer case of the blues. Go watch it already.

That's some bad hat, Harry.
SCENE STEALER: This is a tough one, but since I've already talked up Deborah Van Valkenburgh and Diane Lane isn't exactly an overlooked talent, I'm going to go with Amy Madigan as McCoy. Before they cast Amy Madigan, this part was written for a male, which means McCoy spends most of her time giving Tom useful advice and being a badass and no time whatsoever flirting with him (his one halfhearted attempt is shot down with "you're not exactly my type"). What was the last movie you saw where an elfin blonde babe punched out a bartender for being too slow with the tequila?

She looks so angry at that pole.
Also, honorable scene stealer mention to the bar dancer played by Marine Jahan -- whose short haircut, athletic build, and aggressive dance moves all create an androgyny that's ahead of the game given that Streets of Fire was released in 1984. Online sources suggests that Jahan identifies as female, but the first time I watched this movie, I was really impressed that an 80s blue-collar beer-and-wings bar would hire a drag queen stripper.

No comments:

Post a Comment