Absent-minded street thug Rusty James struggles to live up to his legendary older brother's reputation, and longs for the days of gang warfare.Absent-minded street thug Rusty James struggles to live up to his legendary older brother's reputation, and longs for the days of gang warfare.Absent-minded street thug Rusty James struggles to live up to his legendary older brother's reputation, and longs for the days of gang warfare.
It was the second film he released in 1983 adapted from an S.E. Hinton book. His first ("The Outsiders") was cleaner than this. "Rumble Fish" has a lot of violence, a lot of swearing, and a decent amount of sex/nudity. It is the flip side to "The Outsiders"; and in my opinion, the more mature work of the two (although both are very good).
Matt Dillon gives his best performance as Rusty James, a 1950s street punk whose alcoholic father has all but walked out on him, and whose older brother (an enigmatic figure known only as The Motorcycle Boy) has left and moved to California some time ago.
We are led to infer that The Motorcycle Boy was a sort of rebel hero - a type of Robin Hood, as Rusty James says - and the entire town loves him. As a result, Rusty James "can't live up to his brother's reputation...and his brother can't live it down," to quote the film's tagline.
But The Motorcycle Boy returns one day in the form of Mickey Rourke. He rescues his kid brother from a violent underground fight with a group of thugs and takes him back to the safety of their home.
The Motorcycle Boy has come back in order to make amends, one supposes; or at least because he feels as if he has an obligation to see his father and brother again.
Meanwhile, Rusty James - in a desperate intent to match his brother's reputation - continues his downward spiral of street fights and violence, resulting in more than a few bloody brawls.
"Rumble Fish" is displayed in grainy black-and-white, and the soundtrack itself is surreal, often featuring fragments of distorted audio matched with hazy visuals. At first it doesn't seem to make sense, but then it is revealed that The Motorcycle Boy has a hearing problem that comes and goes at random (typically when he is under stress) - and is colorblind, which explains the b&w photography.
This is a great decision by Coppola because it gives the film an authentic feeling; at first, we feel as if we are following Rusty James' plight, but then once we pull back it becomes obvious we are watching through the eyes of The Motorcycle Boy himself. Coppola's experimentation with color in a few shots is something we're only now seeing take form again in movies like "Sin City" (which also featured Rourke). "Schindler's List" had a few moments of color and b&w, too, but it wasn't as frequent.
The performances are excellent. An all-star cast includes not only Dillon and Rourke but also Diane Lane (who was also in "The Outsiders" with Dillon), Dennis Hopper, Diana Scywid, Vincent Spano and Nicolas Cage.
Dillon's performance is key to the film because essentially this is his story, but it's being narrated to a certain effect by The Motorcycle Boy (at least insofar that it's his problems taking form in the narrative) - and Rourke gives a terrific performance. His moody, quiet embodiment of The Motorycle Boy leaves a lasting impression; his character comes across as a somber, reflective and ultimately regretful man who made bad decisions in his past and now wants to protect his brother from the same thing. It is implied that he may even have become a mail hustler on the streets of CA; his persistence to not tell any details of his adventure, and the fact that he sees a photo of himself posing in front of a bike ("taken by a guy in California," he tells his brother) in a magazine, and then asks Rusty James not to tell anyone, could be perceived as such. Or maybe not. It all depends on how far you want to look into it.
"Rumble Fish" may not be Francis Ford Coppola's best film, but it is one of his most sadly underrated movies and is probably worth mentioning in a list of the best films of the 1980s. In a decade where American art-house seemed to be a lost thought, "Rumble Fish" stands out as one of the few.
- Oct 26, 2005