Story by Dezsö Magyar, screenplay by Heywood Gould and Richard Price and Tom Cole
When I first started delving into Richard Price’s filmography, Streets of Gold was one of the movies that intrigued me the most. In addition to Price’s involvement as a co-writer of the screenplay, I noticed that the film co-starred Adrian Pasdar, whom I knew as the lead of the bizarre, ahead-of-its-time ’90s FOX drama Profit. And then when I looked the film up I found that it had never been released on DVD in the US, despite a pretty solid cast that included not just Pasdar but also Wesley Snipes in the second film role of his career. A movie featuring Wesley Snipes and the guy from Profit, co-written by Richard Price, for some reason available only on VHS? That I had to see!
As it turns out, the movie itself is neither as weird nor as bad as its VHS-only status would seem to suggest. It’s actually a pretty well-done film overall, its only downfall being how strictly it sticks to the predictable rhythms of its chosen genre.
That genre is “underdog sports movie,” or, more specifically, “boxing as Cold War allegory movie” à la Rocky IV, though on a much less exaggerated scale. The main character is Alek (Klaus Maria Brandauer, fresh out of Out of Africa), a former Soviet boxer forced to emigrate to Brooklyn after being ostracized in his own country for being Jewish. Stuck living in a halfway house and washing dishes for a living, Alek finds a new outlet for his talents in the mentoring of two local young street fighters, Rashad (Snipes) and Timmy (Pasdar). Soon an opportunity appears to get Timmy and Rashad onto an American boxing team scheduled to fight some visiting Russians coached by–who else?–Alek’s biggest nemesis from the old country.
If you feel like you know where this is all going, you’re probably right, as the movie doesn’t shy away from any of the cliches inherent to the material. The dialogue often returns to a Russia/America dichotomy that probably seemed profound at the time: “This is America, not Russia;” “We are Russians but also Americans like you;” “In Russia I was this but in America I am that;” etc. And all the usual sports movie elements are present as well, including the obligatory training montage, which, since we’re dealing with two boxers instead of one, gets to be not just corny but also real homoerotic.
But, well-worn as the subject matter may be, it’s generally executed pretty skillfully. The actors put in appealing performances, and there are a lot of subtle but effective touches of humor, as when Timmy is introduced at a fight wearing a flamboyant gold robe but then struggles a bit to get his gloved hands through the sleeves. Director Joe Roth paces the film patiently, not relying on hyperactive editing to get his points across; one crucial scene between Snipes and Pasdar holds the two actors in a static medium shot for a full two minutes, and it doesn’t feel either lazy or show-offy, partly thanks to the well-composed cinematography of Arthur Albert, who gets a lot of nice imagery out of the movie’s Brooklyn locations.
Between the “story by” credit to Hungarian filmmaker Dezsö Magyar and the script co-credits to Heywood Gould (Cocktail) and Tom Cole (Smooth Talk), it’s particularly hard to suss out what Richard Price’s contributions were to this movie. There’s very little behind-the-scenes information available, and the script doesn’t feature any obvious Price trademarks apart from the New York setting, which in this case doesn’t even mean his home borough of the Bronx. In fact, the most Price-ish scene is also one of the silliest: At one point a friend of Rashad tries to pull the up-and-coming fighter into drug dealing, off-handedly remarking, “Yo, man, you should get into some of this crack!” These days, if you were hiring Richard Price to punch up your screenplay, I imagine that’d be the first part you’d have him work on. But he probably wasn’t as known for his drug lingo pre-Clockers.
Again, though, apart from that line and the aforementioned training montage, there’s not much unintentional comedy to be found here. And that’s the cruel irony of Streets of Gold: I’m positive that if it was worse–if the acting was clunkier, or especially if the Cold War commentary was ramped up to even more hamfisted proportions–it would have a cult following, and an American DVD release, today. Sometimes people are more attracted to camp than to competence. But if you’re a fan of sports flicks, or of any of the actors involved, this is still worth checking out.
A few other notes:
• Although there’s been no U.S. DVD release of this film, there are some foreign versions which offer a full widescreen transfer (hence the widescreen stills used in this review).
• Roth would go on to helm the 2006 film adaptation of Price’s novel Freedomland, and, as head of 20th Century Fox, would be instrumental in getting Price’s script for Night and the City made. “2nd Second Assistant Director” Nina Kostroff would go on to be a producer on The Wire.
• One more cast member of note: “Linnehan,” the coach of the American team, is played by John Mahoney, a.k.a. Frasier Crane’s dad.
• A year after this, Wesley Snipes would appear in another Price-written project–one which’ll be the subject of next week’s post.
Next week: Richard Price goes pop with the long-form music video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad.”