Streets of Fire (1984)
Directed by Walter Hill
May 11, May 12 at IFC Center’s “Walter Hill at Midnight“
Is there a more beguiling revisionist Western than Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire? Considering the film’s psychedelic urban color scheme, rollicking pace, and shape-shifting editing style, it’s hard to imagine a stranger vision of the American frontier. Instead of simply tweaking genre conventions, Hill’s self-proscribed “Rock and Roll Fable” makes strange variations on setting and character feel altogether organic. This singular version of Chicago is a semi-wasteland made up of warring districts with borders defined simply by fire, rain, and darkness. Neon marquees and dank alleys stand in for the open range. Motorcycles and roadsters take the place of horses and covered wagons. The indigenous threat to civilized society is represented not by cutthroat Indians but rampaging bikers, brazen leather-dipped thugs seemingly ripped from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. This is neither Western dream nor nightmare, but some acid trip in between.
There’s certainly a burning love for the classic Western in Streets of Fire. Hill uses the skeletal structure of Ford’s The Searchers as a jumping off point, witnessed in the film’s breakneck opening sequence. During a steamy concert for thousands of crazed fans, rocker vixen Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) is kidnapped by The Bombers, an audacious street gang led by Raven (Willem Dafoe) who takes pleasure in terrorizing a populace paralyzed by fear. We know it’s an assault on “normal” life that must be avenged, and war veteran Tom Cody (Michael Pare) shows up sporting a trench coat and pump-action shotguns to do just that. But what makes Streets of Fire so special is its passion for complex fringe characters usually ignored by the genre. McCoy, a butch ex-soldier played with equal parts toughness and vulnerability by Amy Madigan, is never questioned for her sexuality, just her level of resolve. Ultimately, she is just as important to the outcome of Streets of Fire as its male hero.
Since time and space are essentially subjective in Streets of Fire, Hill sees little need to play by the rules. A sense of aesthetic freedom runs deep in the smooth camera movement, jarring cuts, and no-nonsense trajectory, fostering the idea that big-budget filmmaking and autuerism can live in perfect harmony. Early in the film, Cody sums up this brazen attitude: “There’s no point stealing a car if you’re not going to ring it out.” That’s essentially Walter Hill’s daring approach to filmmaking.