Monday, September 26, 2011

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

Movie Reviews. I said movie reviews were coming, right?

Oh look, here's one now!

What can I say about 1984's "Streets of Fire?" Well, the obvious thing is where have you BEEN all my life?

The answer's going to be "Bottom of Blockbuster Bargain Bin," isn't it?

It's hard (very very hard) to explain what "Streets of Fire" is. First, there is an obvious relationship between this movie and the director's previous work. Remember the vaguely post-apocalyptic characteristics of the gangs in "The Warriors?"

Egads! Baseball mimes!

That sort of stylized ridiculousness (crucially played completely straight) is back in "Streets of Fire." Set in a relatively peaceful district of a troubled major metropolitan area (Times Square ca. 1982 remixed through The Thunderdome), the architecture, costumes, cars, music and attitudes are a mash-up of post-war Americana and the 1980's view of the post-apocalypse. Rockabilly blends with New Wave. Shoulder pads rub shoulders with pompadours.

This must be Flockabilly...of Seagulls?

If this all seems a little...high concept they keeps the plot pretty tight. Remember Double Dragon?

No. Not this one.

This one.

For those new to the Beat-em-up genre. The large gentleman in the white skinny jeans is about to gut punch the girl and hoist her over his shoulder. The garage in the background opens revealing a wicked red Camero and Billy and Jimmy Lee. They fight to save her. The End.

That's more or less the plot of "Streets of Fire." An ex-soldier fights to save his ex-girlfriend (now a well-regarded music star) from a gang. And there's more to this video game connection as well. Thinking back, beat-em-ups really had a double-dose of earnest silliness. Looking back at the plots of classics like Streets of Rage (you fight a gang that has gone to the trouble of training kangaroo enforcers), Final Fight (whole roast turkey's found in rusty oil drums restore life), and especially River City Ransom...

ESPECIALLY River City Ransom.

...which really latched on the that 1950's America aestetic, these games all share that neon, bubble-gum absurdity that I really enjoyed in the movie.

The cast has a surprising number of familiar ("Hey I KNOW that guy! What is he from?") faces. Rick Moranis plays against type (Alright, he's still a nerd. But he's a pretty commanding one.) and That-Lady-Who-Played-Kevin-Costner's-Wife plays a rough-and-tumble dame.

Who is also an ex-soldier. Army must be cutting back on reenlistment bonuses. Or basing them on some kind of reverse drabness scale.

But it's not the plot or the cast or even that weird setting that makes this one pop. It's actually the dialogue. No. Not at all in a Tarantino way. It's snappy and wry but ultimately goofy, And yet it works. In the same way that Tarantino's movies are steeped in the traditions of the genre films he grew up with, director Walter Hill clearly has an affection for the schlock and grind, yet even in something like "The Warriors" which is all about brawling street gangs, there's an earnestness, an honor to his heros. Tarantino can only rarely film something this blissfully unaware of itself (the bar scene in "Inglorious Basterds" comes to mind).

And it's not silly in the arch and epic and wonderful way the classics like "Flash Gordon" are. This isn't a film that is so bad it's great. In fact, for many it's going to be so bad it's bad. It's more like a film you made with your friends one summer if your friends had access to dozens of exploding motorcycles, a rain machine, the set from "The Outsiders" and the budget to hire Willem Dafoe.

Willem Dafoe moments before the film's climactic railroad hammer fight.

Did I not mention that Willem Dafoe plays the psychotic villain? That he channels Eric Von Zipper via the video for "Beat It?" That the movie ends with a mano-a-mano duel with railroad hammers? Hm. How could that have slipped my mind?

Here's the catch sports-fans: parts of the movie haven't aged well. It opens with the ex-girlfriend in concert belting out an 80's power single. It's a liability. You have to just soldier through that man. You won't regret it. Number 2: it has another medley near the end featuring beloved staple of easy-listening stations "I Can Dream About You." By that point, you'll have likely already invested in the movie and you'll just let it slide. (Protip: avoid eye contact with anyone in the room.) Third: Bill Paxton's in it.


However in the plus column we have Ed Begley Jr's cameo, a cigar chompin' sheriff, a railroad hammer fight, and hey! Bill Paxton's in it.


Walter Hill said he made the film because he wanted to cram a bunch of awesome stuff into one movie and then he rattled off a list: "...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." If you can read that list without snickering, this might be a movie for you. Meridth waltzed in during the last twenty minutes and found herself enjoying it, but well confused at my enthusiasm. I thought about it a minute and then explained that if I'd seen this movie when I was 10 it would have been my favorite movie ever. At 30, it's flaws are so apparent, but who doesn't want to be a little less cynical about movies these days?

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