I’m sure there are plenty of real-life biker gangs that have been a terrifying menace in whatever communities they rumble through, but I feel like most of my exposure to that culture has been sanitized & defanged to the point where I don’t see them as a threat. From Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones to Vanilla Ice in Cool as Ice, there’s a long history of retro biker gangs that look tough on the screen but never actually follow through on their threats. Likewise, most bikers I see in the streets these days appear to be bored men in midlife crisis, trying to muster up some Leather Daddy fashionability instead of just plain Dad Vibes. Apparently, that de-emphasized biker menace bothered notorious genre filmmaker Walter Hill as well, presumably after growing up in the Marlon Brando era of biker-with-a-heart-of-gold dramas as a teenager. Hill seemingly made an entire feature film just to make bikers feel genuinely dangerous again, terrorizing a 1980s audience with revamped black-leather bullies from his 1950s youth.
Streets of Fire is a 50s teen-delinquent throwback sleazed up with 80s music video neons. Self-described as “a rock & roll fable” set in “another time and another place,” it exists in a make-believe limbo that covers both decades at once – the same neon-noir aesthetic as Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind. It’s basically The Wild Ones sped up for MTV sensibilities, with music-video crosscutting and a constant, aggressive drumbeat keeping the audience’s blood pumping like mad while its rabid biker gangs raise Hell up & down the streets of the fictional city of “Richmond” (read: Chicago). Bikers get away with stripping innocent citizens nude in the street and dragging them across the asphalt trailing behind their roaring bikes as they smash every storefront window in their vicious path, but they cross a line when they kidnap a famous rock ‘n roll singer in the middle of her sold-out concert. The heist mission to rescue that singer from biker-gang territory nearly burns the entire city to the ground, and it’s legitimately terrifying in a way few—if any—1950s biker films were allowed to be.
The only thing that really slows Streets of Fire down is its dead-eyed lead, Michael Paré, which is bizarre since the rest of the cast is packed with exciting, charismatic people you always love to see. Willem Dafoe is a gorgeous sex goblin as the main biker villain, recalling his leather-clad brute performance in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless. Likewise, Diane Lane’s performance as the kidnapped rock ‘n roll singer feels like an MTV-era update to her persona in The Fabulous Stains, right down to the red & black color story of her wardrobe. Rick Moranis is maybe the only main player who’s cast against type as the tough-guy music manager who hires a vigilante to rescue his missing talent, playing the part of a macho bully that’s usually reserved for men three times his size. Paré does not bring much to the table as the mercenary hero in contrast. He’s generically handsome, but he’s got no personality to speak of. Walter Hill directs every single character to deliver action hero one-liners in amphetamine-rattled noir speak, and Paré’s the only one who mumbles his way through them like a long-lost Stallone brother.
While Paré is a major liability as the narrative center of attention, Hill’s high-style visual theatrics more than compensate for his lack of screen presence. Flaming motorcycles, S&M butcher outfits, neon crosslighting, and a music video performance of the soft-rock hit “I Can Dream About You” all violently combine to make a singular genre picture – one that revitalizes a long-subdued subculture that’s rarely as tough as it looks. For the record, Cool as Ice is also a high-style delight; I just wouldn’t say that Vanilla Ice was exactly “scary” in it. Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe is a goddamn nightmare.