Of all the cult films of the early 1980s -- Repo Man, Liquid Sky, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, to name a few – it's a puzzlement that Georgia State University's Cinefest dusts off Streets of Fire from 1984. Director Walter Hill offers a so-called "Rock and Roll Fable" by cranking up the soundtrack of a conventional gangland rescue flick to make it seem more grand than it actually is.
Streets of Fire features songs written by Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Stevie Nicks and others, but recorded by other people. The most familiar tune is probably Winston Ford's toothless "I Can Dream About You." The film may not be very good, but that doesn't mean it isn't entertaining. In between some efficient action scenes, Streets of Fire delivers some nostalgic musical kitsch, sort of like watching the faux-1980s video "Pop Goes My Heart" at the top of Music & Lyrics.
The film takes place in "Another Time, Another Place," giving it license to mash up 1950s fashions with vaguely New Wave music. The film's overture is "Nowhere Fast," performed by "Ellen Aim and the Attackers" to an adoring audience, despite being a third-rate Pat Benatar wannabe (Diane Lane plays Ellen, with dubbed singing voice). Ellen gets kidnapped in midgig by Raven (an amusingly young Willem Dafoe), leader of a motorcycle gang called the Bombers. It's hard to feel much fear toward Raven, given his propensity to wear lipstick and what appear to be black leather trout-fishing waders with no shirt.
Ellen's two-fisted ex-boyfriend, Tom Cody (sullen Michael Paré), blows into town to rescue her, bringing along twerpy manager/boyfriend Billy Fish (testy Rick Moranis) and salty sidekick McCoy (Amy Madigan, whose no-nonsense intensity is the best thing about the film). From then on, the plot borrows elements from two of Hill's earlier, better urban thrillers: the gang pursuit of The Warriors and the bickering partners of 48 Hrs. The title presumably comes from the ease with which stuff blows up, particularly in the rescue scene at what must be the unnamed city's Fog Machine District.
More of a curiosity than a cult classic, Streets of Fire suffers from a lack of genuine wit. No one says funny things like 48 Hrs.' Eddie Murphy; they just trade petty insults. The characters don't have nearly as much character as the soundtrack's wailing harmonicas and crunchy guitar chords, courtesy of the Blasters and Ry Cooder. At least the film has enough momentum and misguided strangeness that you can laugh at it without getting bored. You have to wonder if Hill really wanted Streets of Fire to look like nothing so much as a feature-length version of the "Beat It" video.