In 2011, a 45-year-old director completed a long-gestating project which was viewed with confusion as a vanity project, an inchoate mash-up of his childhood obsessions, his adult obsessions, and his lust for micromanaging every aesthetic detail. Suckerpunch will be a fascinating time capsule in 20 years, but will never inspire romantic reveries, and in its own time it was a failure, bringing to life the latent fantasy landscape of very few people other than Zack Snyder.
27 years earlier, another maker of populist masculine films, slightly younger than 45, was met with similar public indifference for his own labor of love. Writer/director/producer Walter Hill used the power he had assembled from The Driver, The Getaway, The Warriors, Alien, 48 Hrs. et al. to expand his world beyond “tough little stories” into a whole fantasy landscape, a seamless intermingling of greaser/sock-hop and New Wave fashions, a world of young-forever romance and nighttime and rainstorms and neon and highway underpasses but no highways. A world where you’re never more than a block from someone who owes you a favor, or vice versa. I’m not going off on creative-writing flights of fancy here, this is exactly how Hill describes his inspiration.
“Streets Of Fire, is, by design, comic book in orientation, mock-epic in structure, movie-heroic in acting style, operatic in visual style and cowboy-cliche in dialogue. I tried to make what I would have thought was a perfect movie when I was in my teens – I put in all the things I thought were great then and which I still have great affection for, custom cars, kissing in the rain, neon, trains in the night, high-speed pursuit, rumbles, rock stars, motorcycles, jokes in tough situations, leather jackets and questions of honor.”
No protestations here of intricate allegories tackling tough issues, like we got from Snyder when he was challenged by accusations of masturbatoriousness.
Streets of Fire features a hero with two qualities: tough-guyness, and honesty, played by Michael Paré [evoking a young Peter Weller, or a Travolta unable to smile]. A dream girl who talks tough but is fated to be kidnapped and fought over [Diane Lane as Ellen Aim, rock singer whose onstage apparel looks like something Sarah Vaughan would wear, except made out of spandex]. A variety of non-dream girls who actually are tough [Amy Madigan as a soldier, in a brave performance written for a man much taller than her; Elizabeth Daily as a plucky superfan; Deborah van Valkenburgh, the tough girl from The Warriors, here as your typical soulful waitress and Paré's sister]. A bad guy who wears by far the most outlandish outfit in the movie. Gang wars in which what matters is ritualized combat between leader and leader, in which the loser doesn’t necessarily even get hurt, he just… loses, and leaves town, in a form of fairy-tale logic which would soon be labeled video-game logic. A world where people pay for everything in coins.
The plot of Streets of Fire: Gang leader Raven [Willem Dafoe] kidnaps Ellen Aim, not to make any particular point, just because he wants her. Her lover/manager Billy Fish [Rick Moranis] recruits her ex-lover Tom Cody [Paré] to assemble a small posse to get her back. Billy Fish himself is enlisted to tag along for the ordeal because he knows the territory. Cops [1950s-style, but racially diverse] get in their way. Gangsters get in their way. She is returned to safety, and then Raven challenges Tom to ritualized combat. That’s about it.
Did you notice the phrase “tag along”? That’s a red flag. The movie moves fast and is full of memorable images and moments. But Billy Fish is the most annoying character in any movie of the 1980s.
One of the most notoriously annoying characters of the decade is Willie Scott [Kate Capshaw], who tags along in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, who whines steadily, diminishes the adventure by giving persuasive arguments for turning around and avoiding all risks, and seemingly doesn’t need to be tagging along anyway. Billy Fish combines all these attributes with the other annoying aspects of Rick Moranis characters, being a socially awkward nerd who is also an impulsive loudmouth who gets others in trouble by never shutting up. And not only that, he’s also the rich guy who bosses everyone around, calls people “pal” or “sweetheart”, and lauds himself for being smart enough to escape his childhood neighborhood and eclipse the losers he grew up with. And he’s constantly asking what’s going on, because there can’t be a moment of peace.
The following, unless I missed something [surely did], comprises all of Billy Fish’s lines from Streets of Fire. I watched it after reading that Moranis left acting because his strengths were in improvising and writing, and he had no interest in the roles that fit his persona in if there was no room for creativity in the dialogue. Nothing is unplanned about Streets of Fire. Some actors are comfortable playing a one-note role. Moranis got bored early when filming this one.
* * *
- How we doing here, we all set?
- Yeah, not one of them’s got a pot to piss in. I never should’ve let myself get talked into this dumb benefit, I could’ve been making some real money tonight. All right, let’s get this thing started.
- Yeah. So what gives? And make it fast, my time is valuable.
- You and what army?
- Easy. All you gotta do is earn it.
- I started out there. It’s the shits. I wouldn’t go back to that dump if you paid me.
- I don’t think so. It’s not my scene.
- Look, Cody, you sound pretty dumb. But nobody’s that dumb. I’m the one paying you. That means you go get her, I wait here, and you bring her back to me.
- Can you really get her back?
- Alright, I’ll go. She’s real important to me.
- That’s right, Cody.
- Hey, what’s your problem? We’re not takin’ no skirt along.
- Listen, skirt, lemme make it simple for ya. Take a hike.
- Hey, what is this? Get serious. I’m not paying you any extra to take some sweetie pie along for company.
- Look, I’ll take you through the Battery and where the Bombers hang out, but I’m not taking any risks. I’m not paying you to add any thrills to my life, that’s not how it works.
- Look, Butch, I buy and sell people more valuable than you every day.
- Let me tell you something. These clothes are worth more than you make in a year.
- If they got her anywhere, they got her at Torchie’s. It’s a real knockdown joint, no class. I used to book bands in there. It’s right in the middle of a big factory, it’s the shits. You’ll love it, McCoy, it’s just your style. Okay, Cody, what’s the plan? How do you figure on handling all these guys and their motorcycles? You start killing Bombers, we’re gonna be in worse shape than we’re already in.
- Just keep going straight ahead, then make a left under the bridge.
- Look, I know my way around. That’s why you brought me along, remember?
- Walk? I’m not gonna walk around here, I’d get killed!
- What are we talking to this creep for? Let’s get out of here.
- Just trying to get away from you. We’ve got some business here.
- I’m not gonna pay this jerk!
- Don’t call me shithead.
- Go buy some soap.
- I don’t need this guy to tell me she’s at Torchie’s, I said they have her at Torchie’s.
- Are you crazy? They’ll notice me in a second down there!
- What about her? I thought she’s supposed to do the driving.
- Jesus, Ellen, am I glad to see ya! I thought you were gone forever!
- You’re not going with him, you stay in the car!
- McCoy, can’t you drive this car any faster? I don’t want any Bombers sneaking up on us. Let’s get our asses outta here real quick. And where’s this Grant Street anyway, I never heard of it before, are you sure you know where you’re going?
- Listen, I say we give it a couple minutes, then get outta here, okay?
- I’m talking about saving our ass. We’ve got a lot to live for, Ellen!
- Don’t worry about him, he’s getting paid a lot of money to look after Raven.
- What, do you think he’s doing this for love? You think he’s doing this ’cause he’s your biggest fan? He’s getting paid, dear. He takes his chances.
- What’s this old flame stuff?
- What, is she kidding?
- Well, Cody, we’ve had our differences, but it looks like we’ve got it made now, huh? We just zoom along here for a couple hours, then we’re home and dry.
- Bury the car? What are you talking about, bury the car?
- Gonna get rid of the car? What’s wrong with the car? Is this what I’m paying you all this money for, to come up with these brilliant ideas? Why don’t we just hand ourselves back over to Raven and ask him to shoot us?
- What are you talking about? What are you going with him for? Hey, I don’t like the way this looks, Ellen. I’m paying the bills around here, how about some respect?
- Wonder what they’re talking about.
- How big a thing do you think they had, anyway?
- Yeah, well, she’s with me now.
- I hope you two got everything straightened out.
- What’s he mean, he hurt your feelings? What’d he say? Did he say anything about me? What’d he say?
- We’re nobody. We’re going nowhere.
- Look, knock it off. We’re not interested in conversation, okay, moron?
- Great. We just got rid of the old wheels. Wonderful leadership, Cody.
- This is great. Just great.
- Changing flat tires isn’t exactly my line of work, dear.
- The famous Sorels sure put a lot of money into that bus, huh?
- Listen, Cody, I didn’t know you had a thing with Ellen in the old days. You better get some smarts. Learn to adjust to the fact that you’re out of the picture now. See, Cody, I do things for her. Things that a guy like you could never do. Things that matter in the real world.
- Keep your hands off the suit, buddy.
- Come on, hurry the hell up with that flat tire! It’s time to go.
- Way ahead of you, Cody. Whaddya think, I gotta be a genius to know what you’re going for?
- I’ll handle this. I’ll talk us through.
- Aw, knock off the crap, will ya? As far as I’m concerned anybody that goes into the Battery and does some damage deserves a medal.
- Look, cut the shit, okay? You guys got a big job to do, we’re trying to get where we’re going, now let us through. Or do you want to come to some kind of financial arrangement?
- You guys talk my language.
- Glad to see there’s some integrity left in the force.
- First he dumps the car, and now he’s dumping the bus!
- Don’t worry, babe. Everything’s gonna be okay from now on.
- It’ll be great.
- No, she’s not. She’s tired. She’s been roughed up. I’m gonna take her back to the hotel so she can get some rest. This whole thing started ’cause I had to do a gig in this shithole. I shoulda stayed the hell away from this dump.
- Now you’re talking, kiddo. C’mon, let’s get out of here.
- I’ve been expecting you. I know what you want. Ten grand. As good as my word. I pay on time.
- You know, you play rough, Cody, but you do a good job. You should do a little more work for me when you get a taste of what that money’ll bring you. Then you’ll realize I’m the one with the brains around here and you’ll start treating me a bit nicer.
- Where do you get off talking to her like that? She’s way out of your league, musclehead.
- You know what’s wrong with that guy? He’s stupid.
- What’re you sorry about? Where are you going? Where are you going?
- What is this? You can’t get away with this! You think you can ride into any town and kidnap anybody you want? Now get the hell out of town and leave these people alone.
- You know something, Waldo? We’re gonna be rich.
- Great, huh? New discovery. I’ll take them right up the ladder.
- But don’t worry, Cody, I’m not going to stand in your way with Ellen. I know how it is between you two.
- She needs me, but she loves you.
- Is that what I’m supposed to tell her?
- Take it easy, Cody. Thanks.
* * *
Despite the presence of Billy Fish, and the fact that the kids of 1984 were more in tune with musicals starring Prince or Kevin Bacon, Streets of Fire has inspired love from many hard-bitten romantic teenagers in the following decades, particularly apparent in the form of fan art.
Read a more fair assessment of Streets of Fire here, from Robert C. Cumbow.