Directed by Francis Ford Coppola (1983)
by Evan Popplestone
Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s novel features Matt Dillon as Rusty James, a none-too-bright delinquent adolescent who idolises his absent ex-gang leader brother nicknamed The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). One day, while hanging around at his regular haunt Benny’s with his buddies Smokey (Nicolas Cage), B.J. Jackson (Chris Penn), and the bookish Steve (Vincent Spano), he learns that rival Biff Wilcox (Glenn Withrow) wants to fight him. Rusty James, looking for an opportunity to follow in Motorcycle Boy’s footsteps, is keen to rise to the challenge - but not before spending some time with his girlfriend Patty (Diane Lane).
After waking up on her couch 15 minutes before his engagement he heads to where Smokey and B.J. are waiting to accompany him into the scuffle. The nerdish Steve skulks behind them. They head into the underpass only to be confronted by a psychotic, drugged-up Biff. The pair have a protracted fistfight that results in Biff cutting our protagonist with a shard of glass. At that moment however Motorcycle Boy arrives on the scene and him takes down via some nifty use of his two-wheeler.
Motorcycle Boy and Steve carry the injured Rusty James back home so they can tend to his bloody injury. As he recovers, a series of events and revelations occur that will have a dramatic impact on his rough-and-tumble existence.
Rumble Fish is perhaps Francis Ford Coppola’s most divisive film. It is one of two of his S.E. Hinton adaptations filmed back-to-back in Tulsa, Oklahoma during 1982 and released in 1983, the other being The Outsiders. Both even feature several of the same cast members. However, while the latter was a relatively conventional gang warfare morality play, for Rumble Fish Coppola takes a far more experimental approach via largely black and white cinematography (bar a few notable splashes of colour), homages to Expressionist cinema, time-lapse photography and a futuristic soundtrack by Stewart Copeland (of British band The Police).
Critical notices were generally negative at the time, with some notable exceptions such as Roger Ebert. The film was also a major box office flop, raking in less than $2.5 million in the US/Canada market against a $10 million budget - partially because Universal, having little faith in such a glaringly uncommercial venture, only released it to 296 cinemas. Over the years its critical reputation has improved but it still garners somewhat divergent opinions.
Arguably one of the director’s finest films, Rumble Fish is relatively faithful to the shortish novel in terms of story and characters, but very different in ambience. On the other hand, both book and film complement each other in that they both find their own distinctive voice by consummately embracing their own respective mediums. The book took an approach of first-person narration from the point of view of a character who wasn’t very bright or well-educated but had a taste for the primal side of adolescent manhood (be it fighting, alcohol, sex or other bad behaviour). It felt rough and somewhat cynically humorous. Since a first-person narration goes against the cinematic maxim of “show, don’t tell” this version however adopts a highly image-based approach, resulting in a kind of dreamy, self-consciously cinematic feel.
Most of it is shot as a black and white homage to Expressionism, complete with lots of ominous shadows (a cat looming large to foreshadow the arrival of similarly predatory characters during the early showdown between Rusty and Biff) and fog (or rather smoke passing over sections of road, foreshadowing the importance of the character of Smokey later in the story). Many scenes are shot from a skewed, fly-on-the-wall perspective. The time lapse shots and ominous presence of clocks reflects the ever-present theme of time - of how young Rusty James has so much of it to waste and how time itself can change perceptions and attitudes towards events as adolescents transition to adulthood. The accompanying music is appropriately dreamy and delicate, reflecting how this is a passing bubble of life, one romanticised by a naive viewpoint.
It’s tempting to merely revel in the beautiful sense of cinema that pervades this film, in particular during its standout scenes. These include the early gang brawl (a brutally thrilling showdown that easily rivals the best scenes in The Warriors), a sequence where Rusty James - having been knocked out cold by a pair of muggers - imagines himself floating outside his body and over the heads of various people in his life lamenting his demise, and the glowing close-ups of the red and blue Siamese fighting fish which provide most of the film’s few patches of literal colour.
While the style is less rough-and-ready than the book was, it is informed by references therein about how various characters perceive the world. For one thing, there are mentions in the book of Motorcycle Boy seeing everything in black and white due to a head injury he received from a gang brawl. The dislocated feel of the film also parallels the dazed feel Rusty James reports from the injuries he sustains during the progress of the book. In addition, while the film removes the novel’s device of explicitly telling the story in flashback, the way in which Rusty James (in the book) describes remembering past events as being similar to watching a movie might account for the self-conscious way in which the film version plays up that very feeling.
While most of the story details are similar between book and film a few have been altered or omitted. Perhaps the weakest points are that the characters of Rusty James’s father (played by Dennis Hopper) and best friend Steve (played by Vincent Spano) have suffered from the loss of a few background details, thus making them less resonant and significant to the story than before. While both actors do very well with what they’ve been given, the former’s character ultimately comes across as little more than a pitiful drunk and the latter’s a somewhat sanctimonious nerd, while in the book there was clearly something more behind each of them. On the other hand a few aspects have been refined and improved on their journey between book and film. For instance, Patty had some younger brothers in the book but has a younger sister in the film, played by Sofia Coppola (thankfully much more convincingly than in her later - notoriously bad - Godfather III role). She has a crush on Rusty James, a fact that adds an amusing (if purposefully uncomfortable) dynamic to her presence in their lives. Patterson, the local cop who has it in for The Motorcycle Boy, also seems to carry that much more weight in the film due to the presence of imposing character actor/B movie star William Smith in the role.
The main focus is on the relationship between Rusty James and his older brother. Whereas in the book The Motorcycle Boy was a cool but intimidating figure, in the film he’s more the former. He becomes a figure of respect through him being perceived as a zen-like figure, in possession of a higher knowledge courtesy of his life experiences. Mickey Rourke in all of his self-assured aloofness is very well cast here, coming across as an almost untouchable figure who seems to have been beamed in from a separate plane of existence to the other characters. Matt Dillon is also great as our main protagonist, a character who is believably limited in intelligence but also tough and arrogantly charming - a young man who is very nearly one of the cool kids but has something noticeable missing. Amongst the other familiar faces are Nicolas Cage (before the stage in his career when he went insanely overboard in just about every role), Tom Waits lending poetic grace to his brief but significant commentary on the lives of our young protagonists, and even S.E. Hinton popping up in a cameo as a street prostitute.
It’s a beautiful and lyrical film, and more importantly one that continually marvels and fascinates even after a number of repeat viewings.