It’s time, I fear, to talk about Streets of Fire.
Streets of Fire is one of those movies that I have loved for so long it almost feels like a part of me. My dad introduced it to me when I was in my early teens, and I was just obsessed with it from that moment out.Everyone I have ever loved has either seen or been threatened with this movie (or both) over and over again. It’s this bizarre, hyper-stylised borderline-musical-borderline-action-movie-borderline-fantasy where Rick Moranis in big glasses shouts “It’s the shits!” a lot, from the director of The Warriors, Walter Hill. The opposite of a movie-by-committee, it feels like a movie made by pulling a bunch of words and actors out of a hat, shoving the scraps through a paper-shredder, and then sprinkling the outcome over Jim Steinman’s unbelievably over-the-top soundtrack and Willem Defoe in a vest made of binbags.
What I’m saying is that I really have no idea where to start with Streets of Fire, despite my complete adoration of it. So I’ll try to begin at the beginning, with the title: Streets of Fire: a Rock and Roll Fable. And a fable it is: Michael Pare, comically wooden, stars as Tom Cody, a renegade soldier and wandering mercernary returned to his hometown to live with his sister, is our handsome prince, out searching for his beautiful and badly-dressed princess Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), his ex-girlfriend and current rock superstar who’s been recently kidnapped by
ogre goblin bridge-dwelling troll leader of a local motorcycle gang, Raven Shaddock (a greasy, unhinged, genuinely brilliant Willem Dafoe). It’s a simple premise, fairytale-adjacent in its approach, and the backdrop only helps to underline that.
As a fable is pretty much the only way that I can think that comes close to capturing the disparate genre conventions at play in this film. Set in an unknown city, stylised beyond almost all recognition, steaming with smoke and fast cars and knife fights, it takes the microcosm of Coney Island that exists in The Warriors and expands it to fill a whole city. It’s a backdrop almost worthy of a fantasy movie, just distant enough from reality that it fits that fable premise down to a tee.
And I think that makes the musical elements of Streets of Fire work all the better. Oh, yeah, did I not mention that part? While Streets of Fire is far from a musical, it’s certainly got a lot of crossover with the genre – that iconically brilliant soundtrack (I have Nowhere Fast on my running playlist twice in a row because I am never satisfied with hearing it just one time) doesn’t just feature in the background of the movie, often playing out directly through the musically-inclined characters we follow around this bizarre, rambling story. But more than using the reality-breaking premise of musicals, Hill uses music video editing and storytelling to fast-track us through set-up, and, with a soundtrack this banging, it’s hard to begrudge him those stylistic shortcuts. I mean, look at this for an opening sequence:
I’m not even convinced I rate Walter Hill super highly as a director, but this sequence, and a few others scattered throughout the movie, are just such breathlessly brilliant slices of cinematic style and skill that I can’t deny them. The double-whammy of the quick-fire music video approach and the fairytale influences makes for a streamlined, to-the-point movie. Well, first and third act, given that the second is a bit of a flabby mess, but that’s more to do with Hill slowing things down to really take in his gorgeous city setting than it is to do with actual plot reasons. Though I have seen this movie described as a musical, I don’t think it quite fits that descriptor, but the pieces it raids from the genre really serve Hill’s vision for Streets of Fire.
And that brings me to the biggest reason that I love this film so much: Amy Madigan as McCoy. Now, Walter Hill’s breakthrough, The Warriors, is one of those films that so famously misogynistic and macho that it comes with its own disclaimer, so approaching this, his follow-up, you might expect to see much of the same thing. Enter McCoy: she’s Tom’s sidekick throughout the movie, working with him to rescue Lane and even driving off into the sunset with him at the end, even though she goes out of her way to make sure he knows nothing romantic is ever going to happen between them.
She’s a badass, smart-talking, Bill-Paxton-Punching icon, imbued with this swaggering sense of charm and hard edge by the fantastic Madigan (who I have been obsessed with ever since), and she feels, even still, like such a modern, boundary-pushing female character. She’s not sexualized, she’s not presented as a romantic interest for anyone, she’s gritty and gallus and grand – she’s a fully-formed person (and don’t get me started on the way little closeted me felt seeing a more masculine-presenting woman telling the hot dude she had no interest in him), and she’s probably my favourite thing about this film. I would watch a whole series just about McCoy bouncing from city to city, either solving everyone’s problems or making them all worse depending on what she’s feeling like that day, but at the same time, I’m kind of glad she’s just lightning in a bottle in this movie.
Streets of Fire is an adventure. That’s how it feels to me, despite its flaws – a chance to explore this bizarre, timeless fantasy city, follow these absurd characters, enjoy the stellar soundtrack. It really lives up to that Rock and Roll Fable title, in a way that I don’t think any movie has captured since, and it’s that singular nature that brings me back to it again and again.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Polygon)