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Streets of Fire Print E-mail
Monday, 01 October 2007

Image In the city of Richmond, rocker Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) is abducted during a benefit concert by a motorcycle gang lead by the memorably owl-coiffed Raven (Willem Dafoe). Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), a fan of the singer summons her renegade brother Tom Cody (Michael Pare) to help rescue Ellen. Cody, who has an unsavory reputation with the local police, is also Ellen’s ex-boyfriend. Cody returns to Richmond where he assembles an offbeat band of rescuers, including Ellen’s mouthy manager, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) and a tomboyish war veteran (?!) named McCoy (Amy Madigan). The group heads into “the Battery”, the bad area of the city where Raven’s gang holes up at warehouse-sized bar and roadhouse. Ellen’s rescue is handled easily, but not without a sizable amount of combustive mayhem and calamity. Pursued by Raven and his gang, Cody and his bunch must fight their way across the city to Richmond, where they will ultimately face a final confrontation with the loathsome Raven and the police.

Director Walter Hill, following his smash hit “48hrs,” turned his attentions to this stylish throwback to 50’s drive-in fare. Subtitled “A Rock & Roll Fable,” “Streets of Fire” combines 80’s style rock ballads, classic 50’s rock & roll, and late 50’s troubled-youth films into a flashy but completely empty exercise. Hill’s inclusion of a text card stating that the story takes place in “another time, another place” is either an attempt to give the story a mythic resonance (laughable considering how unmemorable and dull the story is) or a desire to remove the onus of being a period piece to placate a worried marketing department. This attempt to remove the story from reality and give it the air of a fable or framed work is an idea that apparently appeals to Hill, as the recent “director’s cut” of “The Warriors” does exactly this, with added and reworked material placing the entire story as a kind of comic-book tale. In the case of “The Warriors,” it was an unwelcome bit of Monday night quarterbacking and completely unnecessary. The framing gimmick and context isn’t so much a problem with “Streets of Fire,” it’s the utter banality of the material and the one-ply-thinness of the screenplay that makes the idea of it being some kind of epic, resonant tale a laughable conceit.

For a film set in a non-specific time, it’s a bit odd that nearly every element of the film’s mise-en-scene (from its costumes, automobiles and props to half of the songs on the soundtrack) are from the 1950s or early 1960s. The only real exceptions are the visual style of the film itself, the hairstyles (Diane Lane’s is a time-capsule example of 80’s torch singer/hair band glam) and the core songs. Anything by Ellen Aim has a Stevie Nicks/Taylor Dayne-esque sound, and “I Can Dream About You” has an 80’s, despite the Motown-style composition of the performing group. In addition to its photographic style, the formulaic story is clearly patterned on late 50’s era drive-in teen pictures, with characters that are clearly defined B-movie “types.” The dialogue is overly arch and hard-boiled to a laughable degree.

The film starts off well. There’s a great deal of energy and excitement generated by the opening song sequence, enhanced by the overtly stylish use of bright colors, exciting evocative visuals, throbbing music and quick cutting, but once the story proper begins and the plot begins to develop, interest begins to flag. After about a half hour, the momentum wanes and the archly flat and overplayed dialogue begins to sound contrived and ridiculous. It soon becomes painfully obvious that the cardboard characters and empty scenario are clearly not enough to sustain any interest. Even worse is the story’s structure. The entire scenario builds up to a tale of a journey and a rescue, but the journey takes two minutes and the rescue occurs before the half-way point in the film. The sluggish trip to return to Richmond is filled with side-roads and detours that cause the momentum to whither and die and makes the last half limp and dull. A film that’s just over 90 minutes should be much snappier and better-paced than this.

The performances are passable. Rick Moranis is clearly having fun, but his dialogue is atrocious. Diane Lane and Deborah Van Valkenburgh seem in-step with the film’s tone, but there’s a flatness to both Pare and Dafoe’s characterizations that sucks energy out of their dramatic conflict. Hill was probably shooting for a kind of stoic, world-weary type with Pare’s character (the film is tangentially inspired by “The Searchers” and John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards), but he’s far too young to convey any real depth. Indeed, one has a difficult time trying to imagine why he’s so reviled by the police. Did he fail to pay a jaywalking ticket? Even more unusual is Dafoe, a usually brilliant actor who is no stranger to playing screen-crazies, but his Raven here seems more irritable and iconic than fearsome. It’s fairly clear that Raven hasn’t laid a finger on Ellen; she’s remained unmolested at his hideout. If Raven doesn’t want a ransom, than why has he kidnapped her? With the threat of rape removed, it makes one reach odd conclusions. Raven’s motorcycle gang all look like the biker from “The Village People,” complete with the silly leather caps. I doubt it’s intentional, but one could read Raven and his bunch as a band of gay bikers out to kidnap their favorite diva. They never force her to sing, but still…

The HD DVD release is a solid representation of the demanding visual palette and editing style. The concert sequences make much use of red lighting, both backstage as well as on-stage. Reds are fully saturated and vivid, though details are a bit diffuse and smudgy. The performance sequences also spotlight performers bathed in blue light adjacent to performers lit in red, and the clarity of the color definition and detail in those shots is extremely impressive. These sequences also feature the most flashy editing, using very quick cuts, pulsing on-stage lights, backed by throbbing drum beats, and the imagery is delivered with no digital noise, no loss of detail and no macroblocking. The photography tends to be grainy, giving the film a grittier, rougher style, but sequences in bright daylight appear a bit cleaner. Shots that are more epic in scale, such as the one where Raven’s motorcycle gang appear and drive up behind him after he summons them with an air-horn are notably crisp with stable image detail. The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix is impressive for its vintage. There isn’t much discrete usage made of the surround channels, but the stereo separation in the music and effects throughout the front channels is terrific and involving, especially in the music sequences. Bass effects are bit limited and are almost solely utilized for drum beats and driving rhythms in the song sequences. Explosions and fisticuffs are lacking in bass weight. These caveats should be considered extremely minor, and these notes are more indicative of the era of the sound mix (it would have been a 4-channel Dolby Stereo mix originally). Universal has opted out of including bonus features on this title, not even a trailer. Given the enormous amount of exposure and airplay the music video for “I Can Dream About You” received, it would seem an obvious inclusion (it’s jammed with clips from the film), but not, apparently to Universal.

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