'Streets of Fire' was supposed to be one of the biggest hits of 1985, but instead it turned out to be one of the year's biggest bombs. Despite an avalanche of advance buzz (a supposedly guaranteed hit soundtrack, a lavish MTV premiere party, etc.), the kids of America just shrugged, rejecting the movie's merging of a retro-'50s aesthetic with an '80s music video sensibility.
The plot itself is so simplistic it almost seems like a joke. Against a "brooding rock & roll landscape," Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe) and his Bombers motorcycle gang decide to kidnap reigning rock diva Ellen Aim (Diane Lane). Her only hope for rescue lies with some unlikely heroes: soldier of fortune Tom Cody (Michael Pare) -- who also happens to be her ex-lover -- and his sidekick, the two-fisted beer-guzzling, McCoy (Amy Madigan). Joined by Ellen's manager, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) and a sycophantic fan (E.G. Daily), the motley crew plunges headfirst into a world of rain-splattered streets, hot cars and deadly assassins.
Dubbed a "Rock & Roll Fable" by the film's marketing campaign, it's clear in hindsight why 'Streets of Fire' failed. Teens of 1985 were simply more interested in New Wave and Madonna than rockabilly and ducktail haircuts straight out of 'Grease 3.' The film's sock-hop throwback style just doesn't mesh with neon fashions and synth-rock, yet it panders far too much to the MTV crowd. Teenagers want to believe that they are discovering their own fads, and 'Streets of Fire' was just too desperate to be cool.
However, when it comes to off-the-wall cult movies, no bizarre deed goes unpunished -- or unrewarded -- and somehow over the years, this wacky, pre-fabricated mishmash has managed to find a small but appreciative audience on video. Indeed, I have to admit that there is a perverse pleasure to be had in watching Lane do a full-on Pat Benatar impression to a soundtrack comprised of majestic tunes composed by Stevie Nicks, the Fixx and Jim Steinman (of Meat Loaf "Bat Out of Hell" fame). And who in their right mind could have thought that dressing up Dafoe in a giant rubber pair of overalls (no joke) and having him attack Pare with a pick-axe was a good idea for the climax of an action movie? It's bizarre "touches" like this that give 'Streets of Fire' a quirky, cheesy charm all these years later.
And to be fair, the film does achieve some giddy heights when it stops trying so hard to be hip. While ultimately it may be less than the sum of its parts, there is no one element of 'Streets of Fire' that doesn't work on its own terms. The songs are aces, the cast looks great (especially Lane and Pare, who have genuine chemistry) and director Walter Hill ('The Warriors,' '48 Hrs.') certainly knows how to stage action.
Make no mistake, 'Streets of Fire' is so silly and obvious that many audiences are likely to hate it outright. But if you happen to have a penchant for weird cross-genre cinema pollinations (or just Willem Dafoe in rubber), you may just find 'Streets of Fire' to be an enjoyable, ridiculously stylish artifact of misguided '80s excess.
'Streets of Fire' was originally released on standard-def DVD way back in the early days of the format in 1998. It was presented in a non-anamorphic transfer (remember those?), and for the time, it wasn't bad. By today's standards, however, that disc is riddled with artifacts and the print is way too dark and soft, making 'Streets of Fire' a very worthy candidate for a high-def upgrade.
Thankfully, Universal appears to have struck up a new master for the film's HD DVD debut, as this 1080p/VC-1 encode is certainly an improvement. Gone is all the horrendous artifacting, and though the film is still somewhat grainy and gritty in spots (as it should be) it looks remarkably vibrant for a twenty-odd year-old flick. 'Streets of Fire' always shined due to its wonderful colors, and they look fantastic here. From the opening concert sequence to neon-splashed cityscapes, hues leap off the screen with excellent saturation and cleanliness.
Blacks and contrast also hold up very well, with only a bit of slight fading during some of the optical "wipes" that frame the film. The print still suffers from a bit of black crush in the shadows, but this appears to be largely a result of the original photography. There are also still some dirt and specks remaining on the master, but nothing severe. All in all, 'Streets of Fire' is far from a perfect remaster, but it looks pretty darn good for an '80s catalog title.
Adding to the MTV mystique of 'Streets of Fire' is its soundtrack. Though perhaps a bit too rockabilly in sensibility for its time (the sountrack's only big hit was its sole pop-oriented track, Dan Hartman's now-classic prom anthem "I Can Dream About You"), 'Streets of Fire' definitely cranks at high volumes. This Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround mix (1.5mbps) probably could have been better if it had been given the Dolby TrueHD or PCM audio treatment, but considering the limited appeal of a title like this, I suppose such a move wouldn't have been cost effective.
In any case, dynamics are pretty hot, even if the almost wall-to-wall rock songs make this largely a stereo mix. I was impressed by how much better the track sounded in terms of fidelity and depth compared to another recent mid-'80s pop-tactular release, Warner's 'Purple Rain' -- and that was presented in Dolby TrueHD. 'Streets of Fire' has tighter bass and punchier highs, and even the vocals sound clearer. At a decent volume, this disc definitely delivers some solid rock 'n' roll.
As a film soundtrack, however, envelopment is lacking. Aside from crowd noise during the concert sequences, etc., there is little in the way of sustained ambiance. The best it can muster up are some occasional straightforward if still prominent discrete effects, most during the couple of action sequences (most notably the raid on Raven's den, which has lots of explosions and gunshots) plus the aforementioned visual "wipes," which are accompanied by some wonderfully retro-cheesy '80s synth sounds.
All in all, 'Streets of Fire' definitely doesn't offer much of a surround experience, but fans probably only care about the tunes, and on that level this one delivers relatively well.
Universal has not included a single extra on 'Streets of Fire.' Seeing as Walter Hill contributed so extensively to the recent 'Warriors' remaster, I was hoping he might be up for some recollections here, but sadly, this cult film remains in desperate need of the special edition treatment.
'Streets of Fire' is a tremendously silly "rock 'n' roll fable," but it's got some great tunes, good action and an attractive cast. Plus, the sight of Diane Lane rocking out in a Pat Benatar-esque red leotard is worth the price of admission alone.
Boasting a nice remastered transfer and good Dolby Digital-Plus audio, this HD DVD delivers on the bottom line, but its deficiencies left me longing for a true special edition of this underrated guilty pleasure. Diehard fans will still want to pick this one up, but all others are probably best served saving this as a rental.