It's beginning to look like an off season for our most dynamic commercial directors. First, Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones sequel suggests nothing so much as an overwhelming desire to get adventure movies out of his system. Now Walter Hill's "Streets of Fire," which loomed as a promising variation on his dazzling urban chase thriller "The Warriors" in script form, turns out to be a peculiarly lackluster affair. Despite the incendiary motifs suggested by the title and the chase elements built into the plot--the abduction and rescue of a rock torch singer--the finished film suffers from a want of tension and volatility, certainly the last sort of defect one would anticipate in a Walter Hill picture.
Several things go amiss, beginning with the production design and tone, which trivialize the setting in ways that couldn't have been predicted from the original screenplay by Hill and Larry Gross. On paper the setting suggested the urban nightscapes of "The Warriors" advanced into a vaguely futuristic period of decadence and inner-city rot along the lines of "Blade Runner."
For some reason Hill has permitted the designers to suggest not Future Decay but an absurdly facetious pastiche of the past, mixing intimations of '30s slums in the "Dead End" tradition with duck-tailed, greaser motifs from the '50s. It's as if we'd stepped onto some goofy city block where the kids were having a Nostalgia Festival. There's a sinuously photographed and edited opening sequence that ushers us into the rock concert given by Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), a sultry number from the neighborhood who's made the big time. But the atmosphere isn't raw or explosive enough to ignite the plot once she's kidnaped by the vampirish biker Raven (William Dafoe) and his gang.
In fact, it's amazing how little alarm one feels on behalf of the victim at this point and how little suspense accumulates around the efforts of the people organized to retrieve her--Michael Pare' and Amy Madigan as young mercenaries fresh from military service and Rick Moranis as the singer's manager. Even the rescue process seems excessively nonchalant.
Madigan is the only member of the cast who assumes a veneer of tough resourcefulness that's simultaneously amusing and persuasive. Her husky-voiced, tomboyish mixture of ruthlessness and funniness suggests the tone of ironic melodramatic fantasy appropriate to the entire production. Moranis has some funny moments of runty self-assertion, and Deborah Van Valkenburgh and Elizabeth Daily do nice work on the outskirts of the action. There is also a delightful performance by an a cappella rhythm and blues group called the Sorels.
But the romantic leads, Pare' and Lane, are pretty much a washout, embarrassingly underlined by their first clinch in a driving back-lot rainstorm. Pare' presents a plowboy figure to the camera and reads his lines like a charmless Sly Stallone. The dialogue is prone to take on naggy, juvenile intonations that produce an odd infantile resemblance to "Bugsy Malone," the Alan Parker whimsy in which kid actors dressed up in gangster roles.
Here the incongruity is rather closer to finding the kids at the soda shop in "Happy Days" suddenly transposed to "West Side Story." But whatever the source of de'ja vu, the tone is wrong. Hill needs something wittily terse and profane, but he ends up with the jabber of bickering high school kids. Evidently, the company was persuaded that aiming for a PG rating was in everyone's best interest, and heaven knows a PG can cover a lot of racy talk these days. But in Hill's case the concessions have produced a lamentable deflation. This is his first movie in which the snap goes out of both the dialogue and the editing.
Most of the action climaxes are treated as such throwaways that you begin to wonder if they bored the director. The oddest juncture offers the grotesque spectacle of hero and villain swinging sledgehammers at each other, which Hill then abandons for straight fisticuffs. The sound of the punches is so thunderous that it seems idle of the combatants to have threatened each other with mere sledgehammers. There's a conceptual grogginess and indecisiveness surrounding "Streets of Fire" that one resists associating with a director as disciplined and pictorially vivid as Hill.
He's lost control somewhere along the way, leaving the movie with no major payoffs to compensate for the skeletal material. Unless one counts the skeletal guest-star presence of Marine Jahan, who gained ghostly fame by doubling Jennifer Beals' calisthenics in "Flashdance." Strutting provocatively in G-string and cut-off vinyl blouse, Jahan reveals an alarmingly stripped-down, sexually ambiguous physique. The "Flashdance" people knew what they were up to when it came to erotic deception. Jahan may have provided the key dance moves, but the fantasy would have shriveled up without Beals' voluptuous flesh for the camera to feast on.
The disappointing thing about "Streets of Fire" is that it can't deliver on the promise of a tangy, sexy evening of stimulation. The failure is aggravated by the exorbitant scale of the production, which seems much too lavish for an atmosphere of B-movie squalor. Not that one can work up a major case of disappointment about such a harmless attraction, but even that hesitancy is a clue to what's gone wrong. "Harmless" is a strange word to find yourself applying to a movie directed by Walter Hill.