Cargo Cult: Streets of Fire

Cargo Cult: Streets of Fire

This week’s Cargo Cult reviews Walter Hill’s cult classic, Streets of Fire. Starring a young Willem Dafoe!

[In this new series, Overthinking It writer John Perich dissects the “high-concept train wrecks” of the early 80s. These big vision monstrosities, known for their weird music and kitschy style, left their stamp on the first half of the decade. John takes a look at these cult classics, from birth to termination, and their impact on pop culture.

The following entry contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS, so don’t read on if you’re really curious.]

Streets Of Fire

Everybody’s going nowhere slowly
They’re all fighting for the chance to be last
There’s nothing wrong with going nowhere, baby
But we should be going nowhere fast.

– Ellen Aim, “Nowhere Fast”

What Is It
Streets of Fire, Walter Hill’s 1984 rock-n-roll fable. His follow-up to The Warriors and 48 Hours.

The Big Idea
50s attitude meets 80s style. The movie’s set in a fictional amalgamation of cities, where everyone talks tough and acts cool. In this dark and crowded city, rock and roll’s the only source of hope. So when a blazing hot rockstar gets kidnapped by a crazed biker gang, her ex-boyfriend – a laconic veteran – drifts back into town to save her.

Why It Showed Promise

  • Wouldn’t it be cool if people dressed like they did in juvenile delinquency movies of the 50s – black leather, crinoline skirts, flannel and jeans – but acted like they did in the 80s? That weird combination of mercenary ambition and optimistic sentiment that defined movies like Back to the Future and Ghostbusters. Hell, combining any two wildly diverging time periods would make for an interesting movie. Let’s have 30s gangsters in 90s L.A. (Heat). Let’s do an 1870 Western several centuries into the future (Firefly). It can’t miss!

  • The soundtrack. If you’re going to call your movie a “rock and roll fable” (which the title card does), you need a fist pumping soundtrack. And Jim Steinman (Meat Loaf’s longtime songwriter) provides, putting two hot tracks in the hands of fictional band Ellen Aim and the Attackers. That’s an awesome name for a band.

    Here’s the movie’s opening number, “Nowhere Fast”:

  • Why, yes, that is a smoldering, just-turned-nineteen Diane Lane in an off-the-shoulder dress in the above video. And, if you watched all the way to the end, you saw a ghoulish Willem Dafoe as Raven, head of the biker gang. He looks creepier in this movie than he does in Shadow of the Vampire, and in that movie – SPOILER ALERT – he played a vampire. Two of the most magnetic stars of the last two decades, at their youngest and hottest. Add in Rick Moranis as Lane’s boyfriend and manager, Billy, and you’ve got a perfect setup. What could go wrong?

Where It Goes Off The Rails

  • Walter Hill’s casting failed him in the lead: a dough-faced young stud named Michael Paré. You may recognize Paré from the 1983 classic Eddie and the Cruisers (also a rock and roll fable of sorts). If not, perhaps such 21st century potboilers as BloodRayne, Postal, BloodRayne II or Ninja Cheerleaders.

    If that didn’t tell you what this film did for Paré’s career, this might: the man has all the charisma of the Matt Damon puppet in Team America: World Police. He even says his name, “Tom Cody,” in the same way. What he doesn’t mumble, he blares. His most passionate scenes come across as louder line readings. He wears overalls and a sleeveless denim shirt. He is ridiculous in every capacity, and he’s the star.


  • The dialogue. Walter Hill and Larry Gross wrote this at the rate of “ten pages a day” (in Hill’s words) after wrapping on 48 Hours. Given its 93-minute runtime, that comes out to about two weeks with weekends off. Apparently Hill feared that he might not get to cast experienced actors, since every speaking character exposits exactly what they’re feeling immediately after they feel it, every single time. Without exception. Some examples:

    A punk, just before sweeping some bottles off a diner counter: “We’re just gonna have to mess the place up!” (CRASH)
    Cody’s partner, McCoy, as Cody shows up while Billy and Ellen are having an argument: “Too bad, Billy. Looks like Ellen’s old flame decided to show up.”
    Billy, when Cody shows up to get paid: “I know what you want: ten grand. I’m as good as my word […] I’m the one with the brains around here, and you’ll start treating me a bit nicer.”
    Ellen to Cody: “I hate that you took money to rescue me.”

    Everyone either narrates what just happened or what’s going on in their heads. No one’s ever called on to act or react.

  • The action. Hill clearly considers the rock numbers just as exciting as the action setpieces. That would explain why there are really only two big spectacles in the movie: Ellen getting rescued from Raven and his gang, and a final showdown between Cody and Raven on the streets of the city. That’s it. Other than the occasional aborted fight or slack stand-off, that’s all the movie has in the way of action. Plenty of music, though!

… And Then, Tragedy
With twenty minutes left to go in the movie, Ellen Aim forgives Tom Cody for taking a $10,000 payoff to come rescue her (largely because he throws the money back in her manager’s face). Reunited, the former lovers make plans to get out of the city. But the chief of police tells Tom that Raven is coming back into town looking for vengeance.

Tom, his partner McCoy and Ellen take the elevated train out toward “Bayside.” A few stops out, however, Tom stands to get off. “What are you doing?” Ellen asks. “This isn’t the Bayside.”

In response, Tom slugs her.

She falls unconscious into McCoy’s arms. “Get her as far out of town as you can,” he says, before getting off and catching the first train in the opposite direction. He has to go back and deal with Raven, naturally.

Complaining that an action movie advances the moral “violence solves everything” would miss the point. That’s what action movies are about. But (A) as said before, the action isn’t that compelling, and (B) the hero punches his girlfriend in the jaw. It’s for her own good, naturally – so she won’t follow him back into the city and see him take on Raven – but he knocks her out to save himself the trouble of an argument.

Later, of course, she forgives him. In fact she doesn’t even seem that mad.

Contributions to Pop Culture

  • Willem Dafoe. This was his big break. Every character in the movie’s supposed to be larger than life – Tom Cody a perfect action hero, Diane Lane a perfect temptress, etc. But only Dafoe inhabits his ridiculous villain – the gleefully psychotic, vinyl-overalled Raven Shaddock – right down to the skin. There’s a beautiful shot right before the climactic fight where Raven summons his gang using an airhorn. His face starts with a sick grin, fading to a stony rage as the gun-toting bikers fill in behind him.


  • “I Can Dream About You.” Dan Hartman’s soft-rock hit is a staple of The Sorels, a doo-wop band that Cody, Ellen and Billy pick up while fleeing from Raven’s gang. They perform it on stage just before Ellen’s final number. It seems kind of tragic that a rock musical with such grand Wagnerian anthems as Jim Steinman’s “Nowhere Fast” produced nothing more popular than this pretty decent pop ballad. Perhaps that’s symbolic of the movie’s overall failure: it’s guilty of trying way, way too hard.

  • Speaking of, The Sorels are a who’s-who of noted African-American actors in the 80s and 90s: Grand L. Bush (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon 2), Mykelti Williamson (Heat, Con Air, Primary Colors) and Robert Townsend (an actor and a prolific producer in the 90s).

  • Anime. Several popular anime series from the 80s, including Bubblegum Crisis and Megazone 23, borrowed their stylized mix of 50s bikers with 80s attitude from Hill’s bizarre vision. Consider “Konya Wa Hurricane,” the music video that opens the first episode of Bubblegum Crisis – a clear homage.

Where Can I See It
It’s available on DVD, so you can Netflix it yourself. Several friends of mine, hearing about this odd little gem, have already insisted on seeing it themselves.

Also, despite its shortcomings as an action movie, the rock numbers that bracket the story are worth the price of a rental. Jim Steinman always writes driving, epic songs, and they benefit from Walter Hill’s cinematography and Diane Lane’s presence. Watch them and listen to them. Perhaps you’ll agree with Ellen Aim, even if you can’t get attached to Tom Cody, that “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young.”

6 Comments on “Cargo Cult: Streets of Fire”

  1. lee OTI Staff #

    I LOVE Jim Steinman and had no idea he’d done this. I feel like a McKim, Mead, and White fan who’s just discovered an entire hidden city block of buildings designed by them.

    That being said, there’s a part of “Tonight is what it means to be young” that sounds a whole lot like “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” specifically the line “Forever’s gonna start tonight.”

    Man, nobody does epic songwriting like Jim Steinman.


  2. perich OTI Staff #

    @Lee: I had a very similar feeling. It’s like discovering an alternate universe Meat Loaf. I know he and Steinman are on the outs of late, but I wonder what it would take to get Loaf to cover one of these songs.


  3. marco #

    Thanks for this thorough look at “STREETS OF FIRE”.

    I think it is a kinda mystery why this film tanked, and why something like “PURPLE RAIN” was massive. “STREETS…” is however now a bonafide cult-classic. It is also available on HD-DVD if you can still get it.

    I love Diane Lane in this movie. She is still such a talented, classy, hot and sexy actress. I mean how many other A-list actresses openly admit having a fetish for wearing high heeled thigh high boots like Lane does!?


  4. gosox2673 #

    @perich Meat Loaf did actually do a version of “Nowhere Fast” for his album Bad Attitude. The chorus is the exact same, but the verses and music are tweaked a bit.


  5. perich OTI Staff #

    @gosox: Holy hell, you’re right!


    Hmm … the synthesizers don’t really add much.


  6. Juan Guataqui #

    I thank you for the detailed review of the movie and its whereabouts. Your deconstruction of it is mostly accurate, actors’ lines are rather flat. Yet you will never be able to rebuild what it was to a 16 years colombian old guy, surrounded by cold war and narcotraffic, it gave him hope. A hope that remains still.


Add a Comment