Monday, July 19, 2004

"They always hire bums like me for jobs like this."

My forum signature over at DVD Verdict includes the above-quoted line from one of my favorite films, Streets of Fire. One of my colleagues at the Verdict commented on this today, noting that Streets is one of his favorite films too. It's one of those movies that many people have never heard of, much less seen. But I rarely have met anyone who has seen Streets of Fire who doesn't consider it one of his or her favorite films, or at least a fondly regarded guilty pleasure.

Subtitled "A Rock and Roll Fable," Streets of Fire is set in some strange alternate universe that looks very much like 1950s urban America. A rock singer named Ellen Aim (the always marvelous Diane Lane, lip-synching power ballads penned and produced by Jim Steinman, the guy who made Meat Loaf a star) is kidnapped by a motorcycle gang led by the sinister Raven (Willem Dafoe, in his first big role, has one of the coolest moments ever by a movie villain -- he sounds an air horn and a bazillion bikers appear out of nowhere behind him). Ellen's ex-boyfriend, a mercenary named Tom Cody (Michael Paré of Eddie and the Cruisers fame, who should be a major star but for some reason isn't), arrives in town to rescue his old flame from the leather-clad mob. Cody is accompanied on his quest by Ellen's current fiancé and manager, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis in full-bore nerd mode), a tough little broad named McCoy (Amy Madigan, Ed Harris' wife) who's handy at the wheel and at the trigger, and a Motown-style vocal quartet called the Sorels (whose members include future stars Robert Townsend and Mykelti Williamson). Mayhem ensues.

That's basically it. It sounds deceptively like a thousand movies you've seen before, but in fact is like no film you've seen before. Streets of Fire has a style and a sensibility all its own, a bizarre yet subtle amalgam of rock film, biker movie, action flick, and Elvis picture. Its supporting cast teems with such tangentially familiar faces as Bill Paxton, Richard Lawson, E.G. Daily, Ed Begley Jr., Lee Ving, Rick Rossovich, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, and a dozen or so others who will make you say, "Oh yeah...him" or "Oh yeah...her." Marine Jahan, who doubled Jennifer Beals' dance scenes in Flashdance, boogies down to a couple of smokin' tunes by that great '80s retro-rock band, The Blasters (whose rip-roaring "Blue Shadows" is worth the price of a rental all by itself).

The interesting story behind Streets is its director, Walter Hill, who in the 1970s and '80s directed a string of outstanding films: the boxing drama Hard Times with Charles Bronson, the crime drama The Driver with Ryan O'Neal, the controversial street gang thriller The Warriors, the revisionist Western The Long Riders (the gimmick of which was Hill's casting of the real-life Carradine, Keach, Quaid, and Guest brothers to play the various brothers who made up the James-Younger gang), the seminal buddy cop film 48 HRS., the Richard Pryor comedy remake Brewster's Millions, the blues fantasy Crossroads, and yet another buddy cop flick featuring a certain future governor of California, Red Heat.

Then, mysteriously, Hill's career went south. After a string of lackluster flops throughout the late '80s and '90s -- including a tepid sequel to 48 HRS. -- Hill wound up directing movies so rotten he demanded that his credit be taken off one of them, the witless sci-fi epic Supernova. His latest film, the prison boxing movie Undisputed, barely sniffed the insides of theaters. It's hard to say what happened to a filmmaker with such incredible talent, but Hill is as puzzling a castle-to-outhouse story as any in Hollywood.

Anyway, in case you haven't yet stumbled across Streets of Fire, you should do so at the earliest opportunity (it occasionally turns up on the basic cable channels like USA and TNT, and is of course available on DVD). It's one of the great unheralded action films of the past 20 years -- fun, fast-moving, stylish, and eminently quotable. It's easily one of my all-time favorite movies.

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