Streets of Fire

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Director: Walter Hill
Writers: Larry Gross, Walter Hill

  • Willem Dafoe — Raven Shaddock
  • Diane Lane — Ellen Aim
  • Amy Madigan — McCoy
  • Rick Moranis — Billy Fish
  • Michael Paré — Tom Cody

RKO / Universal: 1984

93 minutes October 2010


The viewer's experience of Streets of Fire begins with sound: the rhythm track for a rock and roll song. Before the dark street scenes, the screen shows text — not a lengthy "what has gone before", but the barest, most abstract essentials:




Streets of Fire is an action film. But where action films commonly emphasize sensation, immersing the viewer in concrete details, Walter Hill follows the opposite strategy, exactly as his opening promises: giving the viewer almost the Platonic essence of action, stripped of everything accidental.

Despite the urban setting, the storyline would work perfectly as a Western, the classic American adventure genre (or, for that matter, as an Icelandic saga or Greek epic). The exposition is quick: People of an unnamed city gather at a concert hall to hear a popular singer, Ellen Aim (Diane Lane). As she sings her opening number, "Going Nowhere Fast", a band of outlaws ride in and enter the concert hall — and just before it ends, they charge the stage, and the leader, Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe), carries her off, while his friends beat up townsfolk and band members who try to interfere. The viewpoint shifts to a young man riding in on an elevated train: Tom Cody (Michael Paré), the film's hero. In the scenes that follow, he acquires a sidekick, McCoy (Amy Madigan); goes with McCoy and Ellen's manager (Billy Fish, played by Rick Moranis) to free Ellen from her captors; and faces Raven in a climactic duel.

Cody and McCoy are both ex-soldiers; that's the source of the bond between them. Cody's skilled in many forms of combat, from unarmed combat to rifle fire, and McCoy's competent as well, and the action shows their skills repeatedly. But it also shows something else: When Cody first agrees to rescue Aim, he pointedly defines the chain of command. He insists on Fish coming along to provide information about his old neighborhood, which he then confirms with a local informant. in these and other ways he thinks tactically, fighting not only with his strength but with his mind. The rescue is, in effect, a simplified dramatic version of a special ops mission — because Cody plans it that way from the outset. When he comes up against Raven in Raven's home territory, he's acting, while Raven is reacting. And Streets of Fire makes that aspect of the storyline just as dramatic as the punching and shooting and gas tank explosions.

The visual quality of the film is high, both in conveying the action and in setting the scene. Though I compared it to a Western, Streets of Fire actually takes place in a big city. Large parts of it are in noir style; much of the action takes place at night, in places such as rundown bars, industrial rooftops, and elevated trains. The darkness helps convey the "fog of war" feeling and the need to make the right guesses. The transitions are sharp, sometimes intercut with still images, and the camera shifts to pick out meaningful small details, giving the sense of an alert, perceptive mind. Unlike many action films, which overwhelm the viewer with sensations, this one is stripped down to essentials.

But this isn't only an action story: the conflict isn't purely external. There's also conflict between Cody and Aim, former lovers who parted two years before, but still haven't resolved the issues that divided them, and conflict within each one's feelings about the other. And there are secondary emotional tensions involving the other characters as well, mostly growing out of this. How all these conflicts are sorted out is a big part of the storyline. The economy with which it's conveyed, in a few lines of dialogue or an exchange of glances, is another aspect of the skill with which this film is made. And by the end, the characters have all come to a better mutual understanding, if not a romantic happy ending.

As "a rock and roll fable", Streets of Fire is also a musical. The songs are strikingly well integrated into the action: as the big concerts that start and end the film, as entertainment in places the characters pass through, as recorded music playing in the background. One particularly appealing scene has Cody's group commandeering transport from a bus belonging to a musical group — who, realizing that they're giving a ride to a famous singer and her manager, perform one of their songs, "Countdown to Love" (in the classic style of black vocalists in the 1950s), hoping to get a career boost out of the encounter. There's a lot of wit in Ellen Aim's opening big number, a hymn to nihilism that's rudely interrupted when a gang of actual nihilists charge the stage and kidnap the singer; Aim's song romanticizes "going nowhere fast", and the first glimpse of Raven's face in the dark concert hall gives him the harsh-faced look of an Ayn Rand hero, but Aim doesn't view her abduction as a romantic experience, but as an ordeal. And some of the lyrics foreshadow the conflicts of the film — especially the line "So alone and independent — well, I'm depending on you now!" But the closing big number, "Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young", conveys a different attitude: To use Nietzschean language, not nihilism but joyful pessimism.

Streets of Fire differs from the Westerns I first compared it to in deeper ways than urban vs. rural milieu — though that's significant, and the final song focuses on it ("I don't hear any angels in the city / I don't hear the holy choirs sing"). The West, in the American national mythos — the Matter of America — is an unsettled wilderness, waiting to be populated, civilized, and brought under law for the first time. But the urban setting here is one where law is coming to an end. Many of the police are corrupt and only interested in payoffs, and the honest police chief, Ed, who appears repeatedly through the film, is ultimately unable to stop Raven's attacks or hold him to his promises. Nothing in American history is as close a historical model for this as the fall of Rome; when Ed turns to Cody and says, "My plan's not worth shit; let's see what you can do", he might be a Roman magistrate speaking to a young foederatus. And as if to emphasize that this is a world not of law but of raw force, the climactic duel's weapons are railroad spike hammers, almost too heavy to control, weapons not of subtle maneuver but of brutal impact. Cody doesn't end as a ruler, but Streets of Fire captures the instant when a failing civic order gives way and the potentiality for personal lordship and fealty arises. It seems fitting that in his parting conversation with Aim, he pledges to come to her aid if she ever needs him. And where "Going Nowhere Fast" describes the decaying city, "Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young" celebrates both the hero who saves it and the preciousness of life in hard times. The setting of Streets of Fire really is "another place, another time", and the story really is a fable.


© 2010 William H. Stoddard

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