Streets of Fire (1984)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Red Heat (1988)

Every year for my birthday I treat myself to a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the greatest action star who ever lived. Along with Arnie’s award-winning physique and willingness to commit, I’ve always appreciated that he approached his action roles with a cartoonish sense of humor, often using the emotionless affect of his thick Austrian accent to deliver over-written one-liners in pitch-perfect deadpan. Because I’m watching these movies in self-indulgent celebration, I often choose pictures with a deliberately comedic bent: Twins, Junior, The Last Action Hero, etc. That’s likely why my expectations of this year’s indulgence, Red Heat, were way off from the tone of the actual picture, which steers away from Arnold’s deadpan goofball humor to achieve something much nastier & less fun than his usual mode. With a premise that pairs Arnold as a Soviet Moscow police officer with Jim Belushi’s red-blooded Chicago Cop, I expected Red Heat to be a fish-out-of-water buddy cop comedy along the lines of a Rush Hour, or at least a Lethal Weapon. Admittedly, there are a couple stray moments of that buddy cop action humor spread throughout Red Heat. For instance, when Arnold’s Soviet officer first arrives at his shitty Chicago hotel, he slips a quarter into a coin-operated television only for porn to appear on the screen. He shakes head in disgust and mutters in his traditional deadpan, “Capitalism.” For the most part, though, Red Heat trades in Arnold’s usual deadpan humor for a much more straightforward slice of jingoistic Cold War action schlock than what I knew to expect.

What Red Heat lacks in comic relief, it more than makes up for in shameless brutality & sleaze. Cult genre director Walter Hill (The Warriors, Streets of Fire, The Driver) brings his usual knack for style-over-taste schlock cinema sensibilities to what could have just as easily been a Shane Black-style yuck-em-up. There’s a novelty to that tonal shift, especially if you’ve seen one too many tough-guy Arnold performances before; you just have to know to expect it. The film sets the table early on for the cold, brutal sleaze it’s going to deliver throughout with a Moscow-set fight scene in a public sauna. A lurid exercise in culture-gazing, Hill shoots the scene with immense interest in the Soviet comrade’s mixed-gender nudity in the sauna, fixated particularly on Arnold’s naked ass & all nearby tits. This sexual leering quickly erupts into a violent display as Arnold attacks some drug dealing baddies, smashing them through windows into the cold Northern snow. There’s a vicious, mostly naked fistfight against that snow-white backdrop, followed by a second location shootout that leaves multiple cops dead and a drug kingpin on the run to Chicago. Arnold is tasked to escort the drug dealer back to Moscow for trial, paired with Belushi’s street-wise Chicago cop to keep tabs on his collateral damage. That chaperone duty is all for naught; a blood-soaked trail of bullet-riddled bodies is left behind in Arnold’s wake as he fights his way towards a violent showdown involving Greyhound buses at the film’s climax. There’s also a McGuffin locker key that the two factions fight for possession of throughout, but it’s an object that could easily be circumvented with a crowbar & some elbow grease. The real prize this film is chasing is cheap sex & cold-blooded violence.

Although Red Heat is not a buddy cop comedy, it does extensively play with the tropes of one, almost to the point of subversion. Belushi plays the Rob Schneider to Arnold’s Sly Stallone, functioning as the useless, wiseass sidekick no one finds especially funny. It’s difficult to gauge, but it seems the movie doesn’t find him amusing either, often playing his jokes & general demeanor as macho grotesqueries. Belushi is introduced ogling sex workers form the distant safety of his squad car, to his coworkers’ vocal disgust. He commences to hit on every woman in his path with all the charm of your average misogynist slob, only for every flirtation to be immediately shut down with fervor. When he sexually harasses a citizen on the street with a slimy “How ya doin’?,” she immediately retorts, “Blow yourself,” which the movie posits as a reasonable response. This macho blowhard caricature is in direct opposition to Arnold’s stand-up professional gentlemen of a Soviet officer who, despite having the same depth of humanity as his performance in the original The Terminator, is the film’s de facto protagonist. It’s difficult to tell how much of this cultural reversal was intended by Hill, but Red Heat often portrays Arnold’s Soviet, straight-laced demeanor as being much more palatable than Belushi’s sleaze-ball American counterpart. Then again, there’s a villainous crossdressing gag in the film that feels like an early warning shot for Hill’s most recent, flagrantly transphobic film (Re)Assignment, so I may be reading the film’s politics the wrong way. Either this is a total anomaly in the Cold War action cheapie genre in the way it contrasts Soviet & American sensibilities or my own POV is so far outside Hill’s eternal sleaze that I saw a comic relief character he meant to be charming as an irredeemable scumbag on my own volition. I know which scenario is more likely, but I also know that I found Arnold’s character vastly more tolerable than Belushi’s.

Outside the Walter Hill-level brutality of its violence, there’s nothing especially significant about Red Heat as an action cheapie. Any interest I had in its subversions of buddy cop tropes & Soviet-American cultural contrasts are so personally subjective and out of character with Hill’s larger catalog that their merit is questionable at best. The only minor historical significance achieved by Red Heat is that it was the first American production allowed to film in The Red Square in Moscow. The film only puts that location to significant use for police-marching background imagery in the opening credits (which does include the beautiful image of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name in cyrillic typeface). The majority of its Moscow-set sequences were instead filmed in Hungary. Likewise, the film boasts an incredible cast of supporting characters (Laurence Fishburne, Gina Gershon, Peter Boyle, Kurt Fuller), but all are relegated to little impact in bit roles. The best chance anyone has to enjoying Red Heat is for the cheap thrills of a straightforward, hyperviolent action thriller, one where dead cops, naked flesh, and jazzercise all mix together in schlocky 1980s excess. That excess is not at all boosted by the typical Arnold humor the way you’d see in classics like Commando & The Running Man, which is a large part of why it’s a more middling entry into the affable muscle-man’s canon, even if a remarkably sleazy one.

-Brandon Ledet