The American Mythology of Streets of Fire

Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) is not a film concerned with small things. It exists in the rarefied air of opera at its most bombastic. Or, perhaps more appropriately, it exists as a celluloid manifestation of a Shangri-Las song, soaked through with the deep, desperate tragedy only a teenager can truly feel. Its characters, while human, are not merely human. They are embodiments, archetypes drawn from the very core of American mythology. They stride across a neon-soaked world constructed from the tattered remains of everything America thinks itself to be, everything we wanted to be, tell ourselves we are, but never quite attained. The dark side of the American dream is, after all, still the American dream. Or they ride its rain-slicked, steam-shrouded back alleys in fire-red Detroit chariots, engines rumbling like the guttural growl of a wild beast. 

The Hero. The Maiden. The Soldier. The Jester. The Villain. All on their way toward an inevitable confrontation that will define the very heart of this lost, beautiful place.

Streets of Fire is set in “Another Time, Another Place,” although both time and place are visions of the United States, draped in the accoutrements that, for so long, defines the nation not just to itself, but to much of the world. Dealing as it does in broad Americana archetypes and symbols, it only takes this pre-credit sequence to grasp the context of the film. The cityscape (looking lie it could double for a set from another 1980s retro-future noir, Blade Runner) is all back alleys and elevated train tracks and steam, and no one has ever heard of a car that wasn’t a Studebaker.

These images—the elevated train tracks, diners, Poodle skirts, pompadours, leather-clad biker gangs, classic cars—are burned into our national psyche, and they are as integral and easily identifiable icons of American mythology as the cowboy. As befits a country that always thought big of itself, everything is exaggerated, like what you expect from a 1950s-themed stage show at an amusement park in the 1980s.

Hill’s city is a composite of every image of “the city” that appeared in film noir. The population is composed of poodle-skirted or pompadoured rock ‘n’ roll fans, cops, street gangs, and smart aleck bartenders. It seems like it’s always nighttime, even during the daytime scenes. Although there are cops around, they don’t have much power. Whole neighborhoods are controlled by street gangs, and no one seems to have any problem with a bunch of guys running around with shotguns.

It’s also a city without racial divides. The Richmond—as close to a good neighborhood as this movie comes—seems to exist in a version of the fifties that didn’t suffer from segregation (shades of the multi-ethnic street gangs in Hill’s other urban mythological film, The Warriors). Since Streets of Fire is all about American symbols and myths, this makes sense since we tend to see all that was cool about the era—the style, the music, the cars—without seeing what was bad—segregation, paranoia, conformity, Jim Crow. Streets of Fire is the fifties we wish we had, where Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream was a reality and people weren’t divided by race.

But it’s only a dream and tonight is for real

The movie wastes no time letting you know exactly where you stand. Fist pounding rock ‘n’ roll spills over the soundtrack, and onto a stage steps Diane Lane as Ellen Aim, clad in a red and black dress and bathed in splashes of red and blue neon. The song, “Nowhere Fast,” was written by Jim Steinman, who specialized in anthemic, bombastic, and dangerously catchy songs that seem to exist in some disjointed universe consisting of throwback fifties sensibilities mixed with theatrical seventies/eighties overkill (he was a longtime collaborator with Meatloaf). In short, there was probably no better man in the world  to pen the songs for Lane’s rocker songstress, because Streets of Fire exists in very much the same alternative universe where different periods of America have all been swirled together and handed a leather jacket.

As Ellen Aim and the Attackers burn through the opening song, the movie cuts to shots of an arriving biker gang. Doors are flung open, and the gang stands framed in blinding white light. As the song wraps, the gang storms the stage, kidnapping Ellen and punching Bill Paxton in the face. Would you do anything less? A riot breaks out. Police cars flip over, windows get smashed, and a dude gets dragged behind a motorcycle. All this before the credits even roll (or flash, as the case may be).

How you will react to Streets of Fire can be ascertained by how you react to this sequence. If the style strikes you as corny or unbelievable, then you’re not going to click with the rest of the film, because like many films and shows of the eighties (I’m thinking primarily of Michael Mann productions here), the style is as important to the film as the plot. In fact, without the style, there would be no story, at least not one worth watching. Without the look, this would be just another action movie. But the look is there, and that elevates it into the realm of a sort of pop-art fantasy film. It even surpasses Hill’s previous “best intro ever,” which was the opening sequence in The Warriors of all the gangs traveling to the Bronx, accompanied by Barry DeVorzon’s bad-ass “Warriors Theme.”

The action picks up during the credits, as ex-soldier Tom Cody (Michael Pare) shows up and beats the crap out of a bunch of punks in a diner. Michael Pare’s “blue work shirt with the sleeves ripped off” and suspenders look is equal parts goofy and tough, but like everything in this movie, it’s taking a style and extending it to right about the point where the illogical extreme begins, though nothing is as illogically extreme as Bill Paxton’s towering pompadour. Only Ronnie Spector’s hair could give it a run for its money. Cody has been called back to town by his sister, Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh, The Warriors), to rescue Ellen, who also happens to be Tom’s old flame. Cody enlists the aid of tough veteran, McCoy (Amy Madigan), and Ellen’s current boyfriend and obnoxious manager, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis, playing it mean).

And that’s it. Hill keeps his plot as lean and quick-moving as a welterweight prize fighter. If it was remade today, the kidnapping of Ellen Aim would have to be part of some giant conspiracy involving corporations and multinational companies, and there would be backstabbing and double-crossing and all that other needless window dressing, and probably a Tom Cody origin story with flashbacks to whatever war it was he and McCoy fought in. Not here, though. Everything in Streets of Fire is exactly as it appears, and that’s all the information you need. Tom Cody does not need an explanation. We understand immediately who and what he is. Ellen is kidnapped by biker gang The Bombers and their leader, Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe,), for no other reason that he wants her. There is no ulterior motive, no sinister larger plot, no third act twist. The bad guys start out and remain bad guys; the good guys start out and remain good guys. In between, a lot of motorcycles explode.

I don’t see any angels in the city

Every scene, every pose, every line of dialog is simply and expertly staged. It’s like a series of themed photographs. The dialogue may be stilted, but that’s what makes it believable, or at least that’s what makes it identifiable. It’s film noir tough guy slang with the slick veneer of the ’80s. And as with Hill’s pastiche of American myth, it’s not so much how tough guys talked as it is how we think tough guys talked. The characters of Streets of Fire stand as tall and symbolic and remote as the cowboys of a John Ford western, them and the city as epic and larger than life as the doomed gunmen of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Every line is a crafted homage to the dream of the cool American rebel. It’s corny in spots, but it’s never ironic. Part of what endears Streets of Fire to me so much that I will almost mist up is its deep, unwavering earnestness. After all, underneath the stoic, stylish surface of classic American cool there is always the heart of a romantic, a poet, a lost soul.

And don’t think that it’s easy to stitch together a coherent script where every piece of dialogue is a one-liner. The plot of Streets of Fire makes sense, possibly because it trades in American stock characters and iconography, but the dialog also makes sense even though there is never much in the way of actual conversation, and that includes scenes where characters are supposed to be having a conversation. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hill created the dialog by harvesting tough guy lines from the films of the forties and fifties and reassembling them here.

A movie with such a stylized approach needs an equally stylized approach to the acting. We’re not talking Oscar-mining method stuff. That’s not the right tone. It’s more about presence, about animal charisma. Michael Pare oozes world-weary tough guy charm. I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. Ditto Willem Dafoe, in one of his first major roles (he’d been in a few movies the previous two years, but never in a role this meaty). Pare is the stoic man of action, and Dafoe is his equal and opposite: the evil, scenery-chewing villain. Clad in black leather and the since-become-legendary “trash bag overalls” (it was pointed out to me later that they are probably leather or rubber, but I’m sticking with trash bag) and topped with the most insane ducktail hairdo ever, Dafoe’s unique look is exploited to the fullest as he hisses, grins, sneers, and glares through the entire film.

And those names! Tom Cody? You know exactly what kind of man he is when you hear that name. And when you see Michael Pare throw off his jacket and kick ass during the credits, you can’t help but nod and go, “Yes, that’s a guy named Tom Cody, all right.” Same with Raven Shaddock. The name is just weird enough to be cool, but not so weird that you can’t imagine some guy actually having the name. And when you see Willem Dafoe in his trash bag overalls, standing in front of the flaming wreckage of a motorcycle and snarling, “I’ll be coming for her…and I’ll be coming for you, too,” you can’t help but think the same thing you thought about Tom Cody: yep, that’s a guy who would be named Raven Shaddock.

Amy Madigan isn’t just tough, she’s tough, and again you can’t imagine her being named anything but McCoy. And Rick Moranis? Forget it! Almost everyone knows him as the lovable loser nerd guy, but cast here as a scheming, obnoxious, condescending asshole, he is brilliant. He walks that line where he’s just prick enough to be a prick, but not so much of a prick that you don’t actually like him. As with everything about this movie, Moranis knows exactly how far he can go without crossing the line. I’ve never seen so many characters that were so completely over-the-top yet imminently believable—once again, I imagine, because Hill and Streets of Fire play to our archetypal expectations.

Even the smaller roles were cast with the same degree of attention. As soon as you see them, you know exactly who they are and what they’re like. Stony Jackson, Grand Bush, Mykel Williams, and a “mere days before his fame” Robert Townshend—in small but important parts as the struggling band the Sorels—look every bit like the Temptations via a 1980s sensibility. It helps that each of these actors would go on to careers that may not make them household names, but certainly made them familiar faces. It works perfectly for Streets of Fire to have so many people you see and say to yourself, “Yeah, I think I sort of know that guy.” The same goes for Richard Lawson and Rick Rossovich as the cops. You know these guys when you see them, though you might not remember from where.

Bill Paxton also has a small role as…well, the same guy Bill Paxton always plays. But man, did anyone do Bill Paxton better than Bill Paxton? When you need Bill Paxton, Bill Paxton is your man. He’s got that shit-eating grin, sneering attitude — oh, sure he’s just the one character in every movie, but he’s just so damn good at it! His pompadour here is epic. Matching Paxton is Elizabeth “E.G.” Daily, who you might remember from Valley Girl or Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. With rare exception, she played pretty much the same character in all her movies, too, and she plays that character here, but she’s perfect—irritating, but not overexposed, and someone we can sort of identify with (even if we don’t want to admit it). She’s there just enough for the viewer to cheer when Cody walks in, sees her, and says, “Why are you still here?” But you know…she is still there, and that tenacity counts for something.

And then there’s Diane Lane, looking fantastic and just so magnificent that it’s almost a little painful to behold her. Unfortunately, her character, despite being the impetus for everything that happens, is a supporting player. She’s good when she’s on screen, but her character just isn’t good enough to avoid being lost amid the towering symbols that surround her. Although she’s not top billed, Amy Madigan is really your female lead in this movie. Diane Lane is the Helen of Troy of the story. But she burns up the stage during the musical scenes, and that kiss in the rain between her and Michael Pare is all fire.

We’re dancing for the desperate and the broken-hearted

The soundtrack is as integral to Streets of Fire as everything else—obviously, considering the movie is subtitled “A Rock and Roll Fable.” The score was composed and performed by Ry Cooder, and is exactly the sort of twanging, dirty blues-country-rock hybrid you’d expect from him. It fits perfectly with the on-screen action. Cooder’s score is punctuated by several pop songs, including the movie’s runaway hit, “I Can Dream About You,” by Dan Hartman. Hartman may have looked like an amalgamation of that guy from A Flock of Seagulls and that guy from Simply Red (it’s the floppy permed bangs), but his song here is a catchy embodiment of the overall style of the movie. It’s definitely eighties, but there’s a throwback undercurrent to it, something that suggests Motown and Northern Soul. It’s a suggestion that is increased when the song is placed within the context of the film, being performed by The Sorels in their slim-cut gray suits and Wayfarer sunglasses.

Another stand-out performance comes courtesy of a Stray Cats style retro band called the Blasters, who perform two swing-infused rockabilly numbers at Torchy’s, the rough and tumble dive bar that serves as the headquarters for The Bombers. But then there’s the songs performed by Diane Lane’s group, Ellen Aim and the Attackers, a couple of Jim Steinman theater-rock numbers with vocals by frequent Steinman collaborator Holly Sherwood. They are next-level. Like most of Steinman’s songs, “Nowhere Fast” is like three catchy songs all crammed into one, and while it never became a big hit, it’s really good. Damned if I can get through the song without getting caught up in all the fist-banging bravado. But even it pales in comparison to the film’s final anthem: the bombastic, everything-on-your-sleeve, chills-down-your-spine majesty of “Tonight is What It Means to Be Young.”

Besides everything mentioned above, let me just point out quickly that it’s awesomely violent. Motorcycles explode, people get thrown through windows, Cody socks Ellen, Lee Ving (from the punk band Fear) socks Rick Moranis, Amy Madigan socks Bill Paxton, and Cody and Raven fight each other with some sledgehammer-pick axe things like John Henry used to use. Hill knows how to make a dramatic action film, and he’s at the top of his game here. I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t mention other essential crew members. This is a movie where every little part is important to the overall vibe, you can’t overlook the contributions of the cinematographer Andrew Laszlo (who worked with Hill on The Warriors and beautifully captures the rain-and-neon soaked fantasy landscape) and editors Jim Coblentz, Freeman A. Davies, and Michael Ripps, who cut the film to a high-energy rock ‘n’ roll beat without becoming frenetic or jump-cut addicted. Like a good rocker, they know how to find the rhythm that works.

Tonight is what it means to be young

Streets of Fire was DOA at the American box office, but something about the movie clicked with audiences in Japan. It was embraced enthusiastically there, perhaps because it plays to the same sort of aforementioned American mythology that appeals to the pop culture impression of America in Japan. Both countries have a stylized ideal of each other that is based at least as much on fantasy and pop culture perception as it is on reality, maybe even more so. Which is why a movie like Streets of Fire played so well to a Japanese audience. It is quintessentially American without actually being an accurate reflection of America. 

It was hugely influential on 1980s anime creators. Many television shows and OAVs drew their look and inspiration from Streets of Fire—and some went as far as to include animated versions of the film playing in the background of a scene. The opening sequence of and many other scenes from Bubblegum Crisis draws so heavily from Streets of Fire that one enterprising anime fan edited scenes from Bubblegum Crisis to the audio from the Streets of Fire trailer, and the results are amazingly similar. And tell me that the various villains in Fist of the North Star don’t owe as much or more to Raven Shaddock as they do to the guys from The Road Warrior. Heck, Megazone 23 is completely blatant about the influence Streets of Fire has over it. And the Streets of Fire influence isn’t limited to anime. For a while, every hip Japanese director would cite Streets of Fire as an influence on their work.

As they’ve done with so much American culture dismissed or forgotten by America, the Japanese were careful, contentious stewards of Streets of Fire, keeping the flame burning until America caught up and began to recognize and appreciate what they had. The streamlined story and hardboiled antics might cause you to miss just how artfully put-together the package is, but even if you don’t spend the entire movie dissecting it, you can watch it at a surface level and howl with sheer, unbridled joy. Streets of Fire is what it means to be young.