Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 10/21/05 w/ Additional Edits.
When Francis Ford Coppola broke through with The Godfather films in 1972 and its sequel in 1974. He was quickly becoming one of the finest American directors of the 1970s. 1974's The Conversation helped establish his role but after the chaotic production for 1979's Apocalypse Now, it was clearly becoming the beginning of the end for director. In 1982 with his dream studio Zoetrope now coming into fruition, Coppola fell into the big-budget flop trap with his 1982 musical feature One from the Heart which put his studio into a lot of financial trouble. The failure of the film with its $23 million budget and state-of-the-heart equipment forced Coppola to find new projects that would satisfy not just commercially but critically as well. He found himself interested in two books by writer S.E Hinton. One of them was The Outsiders which he chose after being petitioned by school kids to do the film and another Hinton novel he chose to adapt into a film was the coming-of-age street drama Rumble Fish.
Adapted by Hinton and Coppola, Rumble Fish is a tale of a young street punk who tries to take over leadership of his older brother's gang. When his older brother returns from California, the young man is forced to content with his older brother's advice to stop the gang thing and go in his own way. Shot on location in Tulsa, Oklahoma in black-and-white, Coppola aimed for an arty coming-of-age film that isn't just an ode to the European films Coppola loved but also the teen angst he identified with in the 1950s. Starring Coppola regulars Matt Dillon, Dennis Hopper, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Tom Waits, and family members Nicolas Cage and Sofia Coppola (as Domino) along with Diana Scarwid, Vincent Spano, Chris Penn, William Smith, and Mickey Rourke. Rumble Fish is a fascinating, arty drama that carries enough angst and power to an overlooked coming-of-age film.
For the young Rusty James (Matt Dillon), all his life was to lead the gang his older brother the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) has led. After two months, the Motorcycle Boy has disappeared as Rusty James is doing nothing but hang around with his buddies Smokey (Nicolas Cage), B.J. (Chris Penn), and childhood friend/nerd Steve (Vincent Spano) at a pool bar owned by Benny (Tom Waits). When another friend named Midget (Laurence Fishburne) arrives with news that Biff Wilcox (Glenn Withrow) wants to fight him tonight, Rusty James decides he will despite his older brother's rules of no fighting when he's gone. Before he decides to fight Biff at 10:00, he decides to meet his girlfriend Patty (Diane Lane) at her home where she's staying with her younger sister Donna (Sofia Coppola) where Patty feels that his role as a street fighter has only made him stupid.
After his night with Patty, Rusty James gets ready to fight the pill-popping Biff that all goes well until the arrival of the Motorcycle Boy who has returned after two months. Biff cuts Rusty James as Motorcycle Boy beats up Biff. Steve and Motorcycle Boy take Rusty James back to their apartment home as Motorcycle Boy takes care of him. The Motorcycle Boy reveals that he had been to California for two months while Rusty James notices he's gotten older and looks more weary while dealing with his on-off deafness and the fact that he's color-blind. After returning to school and meeting Patty at her house for another date, Rusty James returns home where he meets an ex-girlfriend of the Motorcycle Boy in Cassandra (Diana Scarwid) who has become a heroin junkie. Rusty James has a loathing for junkies and doesn't understand in what his brother sees in her. Later, their father (Dennis Hopper) returns home in his usual, sad drunken stupor as he talks to his eldest son about California and the Greeks.
After a night of partying with Smokey and his cousin James (Gian-Carlo Coppola), Rusty James finds himself in trouble with Patty as they break up. After being suspended from school, Rusty James decide to go into another night of partying into town with the Motorcycle Boy and Steve. They stop at a zydeco concert where the Motorcycle Boy dances with Cassandra while they walk into the town's vibrant scene. For Rusty James, the town was filled with live instead of the place he lives in on the other side of the bridge. After talking with the Motorcycle Boy, Rusty James thought he was going to be just like him until the Motorcycle Boy reveals that while he was in California, he met their mother and decided to be with her for a while. Rusty finds himself upset while maintaining that he’s going to be like him.
After an assault by a couple of thugs, the Motorcycle Boy saves him again as Rusty James wants to continue the gang lifestyle while Steve and the Motorcycle Boy tell him there's no future in that world. Even as the town's officer Patterson (William Smith) is waiting for the Motorcycle Boy to slip up, Rusty James still wants to pursue his brother's role. Yet after learning of a scheme created by Smokey, he realizes that his main flaw is that he isn't smart enough to be a leader whereas Smokey has the intelligence.
The Motorcycle Boy meanwhile, has become obsessed with colorful Siamese fighting fishes that he coined as Rumble Fish. With Patterson lurking, the Motorcycle Boy and Rusty James have heart-to-heart with their father as it leads to a melancholic conversation about how Rusty James is falling into bad waters. With his brother not being the same and his friends moving on, Rusty James is forced to learn about finding his own identity.
If the film does have one major flaw, it's that at times it falls into some of the pretentiousness of any kind of art movie. Whether it's the references to time, moving clouds at fast speed or shots of the city. Still, for an art film, it looks great and it represents in what Coppola is trying to say about time. In the sense that the Motorcycle Boy's time is running out and Rusty James isn't aware that he's just getting started. It's really a young man who idolizes his brother only to realize that he has to be his own person.
It's something that Coppola and the film's novelist S.E. Hinton wanted to talk about. There's one person who wants to be his brother while his brother isn't the same person anymore. He's tired, he's had enough of an old lifestyle and he doesn't feel like he's got anything to prove except to teach his brother that there's something more. It was something that was very personal to Francis Ford Coppola in its story which is why in the final credits, he dedicates his film to his older brother August (Nicolas Cage’s father) for teaching him.
If the screenplay of the film conveys the themes in what the story is trying to tell. Coppola chose to tell the story in style. By going to old black-and-white style of photography that is throw-back to the old European films he was influenced by. Even the sequences of moving clouds, city backdrops, and having a clock in a frame of the film is shown in an arty way. Even if it seems pretentious, it's all for good reasons. There's a scene during where after Rusty James gets beat up by two thugs, there's a strange out-of-body sequence that happens in which it gives the film a stylish feel. Even in the stuff with the fishes, it's the fishes that are in color where everything else is in black-and-white. Only one moment in the film where it shifts from black-and-white to color and it's an emotional one. In a lot of ways, it's Coppola leaning towards a visual style of storytelling that works overall in his directing.
Helping Coppola in his visual style is cinematographer Stephen H. Burum whose black-and-white photography really gives the film a distinctive, authentic style where in color, it wouldn't retain the tone of the film. Burum's cinematography is amazing to watch from its lighting to its use of sunlight in many sequences. Editor Barry Malkin also gives the film a nice, leisurely style feel in its 94-minute running time with a lot of solid cuts that gives the film a nice movement. Helping in Coppola to capture the authenticity of the film and Tulsa is his longtime production designer Dean Tavoularis who helps captures the vibrancy of the city and the urban decay of the apartments where Rusty James and his brother lives. Even the costume design of Marjorie Bowers works, especially for Diane Lane who manages to steal a scene with the clothes she wears. Helping the film give its mood in sound is longtime Coppola collaborator Richard Beggs whose sound design helps the movie give a feeling with its use of clocks and winds to convey an impending doom that's going to happen.
With a bit of zydeco, rock, and soul that's played in the background of some scenes in the movie. Most of the music comes from Police drummer Stewart Copeland who brings all sorts of material for the film. Ranging from reggae, jazz, new wave, and everything else that's in the Police sound. The film has a nice percussive feel that is vibrant to where the film is, even in its dark moments where the layers of jazz melodies occurs. Stewart Copeland's score is really one of the film's most memorable moments in which his work as a composer gave him something to do aside from his work in the Police during the late 70s and early 80s.
Then there's the film cast and with a cast of old-school and then-new school iconic actors/filmmakers. How can you not watch this film? With some nice small performances from Herb Rice as a pool player in a bar scene with Rourke and Dillon along with a nice little role from the young Sofia Coppola, far better than the performance she gave in The Godfather, Part III, as Diane Lane's little sister Donna. There's also cameos in the film from the film's novelist S.E. Hinton and Sofia's late older brother Gian-Carlo Coppola as in real life, Nicolas Cage's cousin. Also noted is that Gian-Carlo and brother Roman both served as associate producers for the film. Also giving out some memorable small performances are Glenn Withrow as Biff Wilcox, the always-funny Chris Penn as B.J., Diana Scarwid as the beautiful, desperate junkie Cassandra, Laurence Fishburne as the cool, pimpin' Midget, and the always cool Tom Waits as the time-consuming pool bar owner Benny.
Now if anyone is going to get an ingenue for a film like this, who better than the extremely, smokin' hot Diane Lane. Lane steals every moment in the film with her graceful, old-school Hollywood beauty, especially in the scene when she walks into Benny's bar. Even in the fantasy sequences for Rusty James, she just oozes with sexuality while bringing a lot of toughness and frustration to her character. It's a great performance from the young Diane Lane but what is more astounding is that seeing her 20 years later and she is still fucking gorgeous. William Smith gives a wonderful performance as the intimidating, observant Patterson who just waits for the Motorcycle Boy to slip while reminding Rusty James that he doesn't know his brother very well. Dennis Hopper gives a brilliant performance as the melancholic drunk father of Rusty James and the Motorcycle Boy who has a lot of love to offer but reminds Rusty James to be an individual and go his own way.
Nicolas Cage also gives a great performance as the slick, laid-back partner of Rusty James who has a lot of intelligence while reminding his friend that he doesn't have the capabilities of being a leader. Vincent Spano plays against type as the moralistic childhood friend Steven who often reminds Rusty James of his flaws and telling him that his brother is making sense. Matt Dillon gives a strong, confrontational performance as the troubled protagonist Rusty James who thinks he knows things only in the end to know so little. Dillon gives his character a lot of depth and growth towards the end as he journeys into his own existence, living in his own world and acting like a child. Then when the film develops, Dillon brings a lot of emotion to his troubles and dealing with the fact that his brother might not be around very much. It's truly one of Matt Dillon's more overlooked and inspiring performances.
The film's best performance belongs to Mickey Rourke. Rourke in many of his films brings a lot of charm, charisma, and attitude that defines him as one of the coolest actors of his generation. There's a James Dean quality to him but in his role as the Motorcycle Boy, Rourke brings something that isn't seen very often in his work. He brings a lot more restraint and melancholia to his role as a man weary of his old lifestyle trying to get his brother into the right path. Rourke is mostly quiet through the film with a complexity of coolness and weariness into one singular approach. This is a man who doesn't want to be disturb and tries to do good, even when he comforts his father and brother. Still, if you mess with him, you're going to get in trouble as Rourke proves to be a real badass. This is by far one of his greatest performances and one of the more overlooked performances of the decade.
When Rumble Fish came out in late 1983, months after The Outsiders, like its predecessor, the film received mixed reviews. Most of the complaints was Coppola's approach into making an arty film that doesn't appeal to anyone. While The Outsiders was modestly successful in the box office, Rumble Fish struggled to find an audience and ended up getting overlooked as it gave Coppola a tougher time to continue as his output in the rest of the decade was merely work-for-hire. Since its release, Rumble Fish has grown into a cult film and most recently along with an extended cut DVD release of The Outsiders, Rumble Fish was given a special edition DVD release while rumors still persist that Coppola has made an eight-hour cut of the movie. Yet the film's influence can be traced in daughter Sofia Coppola's 1997 short film Lick the Stars in its style and angst.
Nearly 20 years after its release, Rumble Fish is a wonderfully stylish, coming-of-age drama from Francis Ford Coppola. With a great cast led by Mickey Rourke and Matt Dillon along with Diane Lane, Dennis Hopper, Chris Penn, Laurence Fishburne, Nicolas Cage, and William Smith. It's by far one of the most underrated films in recent years. While the film's flaws only hits in its art-house style, fans of art-house pretentiousness will love it. Fans of these actors will definitely enjoy this film while anyone who loves the work of the Coppola family will find this worthy in their filmography. For a cool movie shot in black-and-white with a lot of attitude and style, Rumble Fish is the film to see.
Francis Ford Coppola Reviews: Dementia 13 - (You're a Big Boy Now) - (Finian's Rainbow) - (The Rain People) - The Godfather - The Conversation - The Godfather Part II - Apocalypse Now/Apocalypse Now Redux - One from the Heart - The Outsiders - The Cotton Club - (Peggy Sue Got Married) - (Garden of Stone) - (Tucker: The Man & His Dream) - New York Stories - The Godfather Part III - Bram Stoker's Dracula - (Jack) - (The Rainmaker) - (Youth Without Youth) - Tetro - (Twixt)
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