Pick up halfway through the movie. The streets are...well, on fire, like the title says. Barechested and sporting a set of black leather overalls, Willem Dafoe comes strolling out through the flames to congratulate Michael Paré -- who's doing a clunky John Wayne impression -- on his daring raid.
"Well...looks like I finally ran into someone who likes to play as rough as I do."Now toss in a barely legal Diane Lane doing her best Pat Benatar and just about spilling out of her top, some gender-ambiguous stripping to a swing number, a fleet of motorcycles and cop cars that explode more readily than a Pinto on Dateline NBC, an out-of-left-field cold-cocking of a woman that wouldn't be topped for more than twenty years, a climactic arm-and-hammer beatdown that makes They Live look kinda timid, oddball supporting turns by Ed Begley, Jr. and Bill Paxton in a big-ass pompadour, a setting of "another time, another place" that looks like a '50s sock hop by way of Escape from New York, and a bunch of genre-hopping musical numbers just for the hell of it, and that's Streets of Fire.
Sure, the plot pretty much boils down to Girl Gets Kidnapped, Girl Gets Rescued, and Girl Tries to Stay Rescued, but Streets of Fire takes the script for a thoroughly conventional '80s low-budget action flick and cranks up the camp until its genre underpinnings are practically an afterthought. The action sequences are great across the board; I can practically hear Walter Hill cackling off camera as he blows up anything and everything on screen, and the savage street brawl in the climax is as gleefully ridiculous as it is unrelentingly brutal. The musical numbers that pepper the film leap from Meatloaf-esque pomposity to a capella doo-wop to swing to the adult contemporary saccharine pop of "I Can Dream About You". Director/co-writer Walter Hill isn't timid about tossing in a bunch of nods to a couple of his bigger successes from a few years prior, including the name of the Bombers' hangout and a couple of the actresses that pop up in bit parts. The influence of 48 Hrs. and The Warriors creeps into the story too, spending the better part of the third act darting away from a gang in a rundown city while the movie's two mismatched leads bicker incessantly.
Oh, but the best thing about Streets of Fire...well, aside from a young-'n-foxy Diane Lane...is Michael Paré. He has one of the more fascinatingly bizarre backstories of any action hero, ditching his rising pop star girlfriend and joining the Army because he didn't want to be her roadie. From his wooden delivery of the movie's chest-thumpingly machismo dialogue to his insistence on whipping out a shotgun and blasting anything with a running engine to the way he practically devours Diane Lane in the obligatory romantic kiss in the rain...genius. Yeah, it's one note bravado, but Paré's stone-faced seriousness mixed in with Streets of Fire's steady stream of ridiculousness makes the movie what it is.
Streets of Fire tanked at the box office, but the movie's so hypercaffeinated and deliriously over the top that it's netted a healthy cult following over the past twenty years and change. It's one of the less accessible catalog titles that Universal has pulled off the shelf lately, but devotees of '80s action-camp should find Streets of Fire to be required viewing.
Video: As much of a step up as the 1998 non-anamorphic DVD was over every release before it, Streets of Fire has always looked murky and excessively dark on home video. The new transfer on this 1.85:1 HD DVD is the best Streets of Fire has looked since it bowed out of theaters more than twenty years ago, even if the film's underlit, gritty visual style doesn't exactly make for high-definition eye candy.
Streets of Fire doesn't instantly impress in quite the same way as Paramount's sterling reissue of Walter Hill's other cult classic, The Warriors. The bulk of the movie was shot in low light, resulting in an image that's often flat and grainy. The visuals are dark and dank by design, but some hues -- candy-colored neon lights, some of the borderline-flourescent '80s duds, and...y'know, the fiery streets -- are vividly saturated. There is some sporadic softness, and the presence of fine detail can be somewhat uneven. Crispness and clarity vary depending on how close the camera is and how much light is bathing the set at any given time. Some of the more eye-catching moments include the neon-reflecting puddle that opens the movie, the fine patterns in Rick Moranis' dweeby suit, some of the more ominous closeups of Willem Dafoe, and when Diane Lane is caught in the spotlight in her character's performance of "Nowhere Fast".
The transfer itself is solid, and the handful of tiny flecks of dust are easily shrugged off. Along with snippets of a music video in the middle of the movie, a few other shots have kind of a processed, video-like appearance rather than the natural warmth of film, although this isn't a constant problem. Still, even if this isn't the most visually arresting HD DVD, it's a solid presentation of Streets of Fire, and fans of the movie should be deeply impressed.
Because of the short length of the movie and the complete lack of extras, Streets of Fire fits comfortably on a single-layer HD DVD.
Audio: The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 remix can't quite shake the age of the original elements but sounds surprisingly robust. The subwoofer is frequently rumbling, even if the bass isn't thick or resonant, and the mix does a commendable job filling every speaker with sound. The surrounds aren't constantly chattering with activity in this front-weighted mix, but imaging is strong when the rear speakers do kick in, from the wheeze of steam valves to the clatter of the subway to the roar of the Bombers' bikes from channel to channel as they careen across the screen. The film's dialogue sounds dated and slightly muffled, resulting in some occasional clipping, but it's never overwhelmed in the mix. Not perfect but definitely better than expected
A 2.0 French dub has also been included alongside subtitles in English and French.
Extras: Nothing. Walter Hill made it clear on Paramount's release of The Warriors that he'd just as soon let his movies speak for themselves, so the complete and total lack of extras here isn't surprising.
Conclusion: Walter Hill's ham-fisted rock and roll fable is probably too campy for most tastes -- if you haven't seen the movie before, you might want to give it a rental first -- but the cult following that Streets of Fire has earned over the past twenty years should find this HD DVD to be well worth the modest asking price. It's not something to yank off shelf to show off your home theater, no, but the disc offers a strong high definition presentation of a movie that's always looked dismal on home video, and the multichannel remix is much more effective than I went in expecting. An unconventional but appreciated selection from Universal's back catalog. Recommended.