Rumble Fish (1983)

14 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

There is a clock in each shot. Trickery is used for pivotal sequences. The film is in black-and-white, save for certain random things in color…or are they random? And here we have “Rumble Fish,” the self-proclaimed “art film for young people.” It’s an arty piece of work full of stunning cinematography, unique visual effects, and a lot of symbolism. It’s based on a novel by S.E. Hinton, which apparently no one thought could be filmable except for Francis Ford Coppola, one of the most inventive filmmakers around. But he found a way—the result is not an entertaining film, but a fascinating one nonetheless.

This is Coppola’s second collaboration with Hinton after “The Outsiders.” Apparently right after Coppola and his crew were through with production on “The Outsiders,” Coppola decided to go another round (this time, co-writing “Rumble Fish” along with Hinton, adapting her own novel). Why not?

Like most of Hinton’s stories, “Rumble Fish” is about a band of tough, hard-luck teenagers who get by in their own ways, for better or worse. This one is centered around two brothers—one who can’t live up to the other’s reputation, and the other who can’t live it down. Rusty-James (Matt Dillon) is a hothead who acts tough, but doesn’t have a real gang to follow him or even a real battle to fight. He’s not bright enough to be a leader, but dumb enough to get himself into trouble. He’s no different than Biff Wilcox (Glenn Withrow), a similarly pathetic thug who calls Rusty-James out.

Rusty-James’ brother is a heroic figure simply regarded as the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). He’s a born leader and a trouper of gang warfare. He’s also very clever and intelligent—everything Rusty-James isn’t. After being gone for a few months, he has returned to give Rusty-James some life lessons. And he better, because their father, a lazy drunk (Dennis Hopper), is of no help at all. In and out of Rusty-James’ life are his sometimes-girlfriend Patty (Diane Lane); his nervous best friend Steve (Vincent Spano); a “Messenger of the Gods” type nicknamed Midget (Laurence Fishburne); and his unreliable friend Smokey (Nicholas Cage) who believes he could be a gang leader. That’s about as much of a story as we get, with the tired and self-reformed Motorcycle Boy here with one simple purpose—to show Rusty-James what he’s constantly getting himself into.

Symbolism in “Rumble Fish” includes clocks in nearly every scene (including two characters standing in front of a giant clock-face) and fast-moving billowy clouds (whether they be in straight shots or in reflections). This is obviously supposed to symbolize that time for Rusty-James is running out before he develops as big a reputation as the troubled Motorcycle Boy. It’s also great to look out—the exaggerated imagery actually amounts to something, rather than giving us something pretty to look at with no substance in the story. Here, I actually felt there was something being said within the imagery. There are also red and blue fish (the only objects shown in color throughout the film) that are supposed to represent the relationship between the two brothers. How the Motorcycle Boy explains what they represent is thought-provoking.

That’s not to say this form doesn’t have its flaws. Sometimes, the symbolism can be a little too obvious, while other times it comes off as pretty distracting. But for the most part, it does work effectively.

There’s one great effects sequence in which Rusty-James has an out-of-body experience after getting hit in the head. He levitates in the air as he literally watches his life drift by. However the filmmakers did that effect that made Matt Dillon float in the air is outstanding work on their part. Watch the scene, and tell me if you see any wires.

As an art film, the imagery and cinematography seems to overshadow the actors, but they hold up on their own. Matt Dillon has played dumb tough kids for quite some time (“Over the Edge,” “My Bodyguard,” and other Hinton film adaptations, “Tex” and “The Outsiders”), but he’s still pretty strong in the role that requires him to change from tough to weak. However, if there’s one actor that stands out among the rest, it’s definitely Mickey Rourke, who is just excellent as the Motorcycle Boy. He has such quiet authority in a role that could’ve been thankless, but he makes it into a sensible, intelligent, intriguing individual. He’s like a veteran actor who suddenly got tired of the fame that his past has brought him, and would rather live it down. Rourke is outstanding in this movie.

“Rumble Fish” is a showcase of allegory, dilemma, and emotion. It’s quite different from “Tex” and “The Outsiders” in that way, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fascinating. It’s original, it moves, and somewhat to my surprise I found myself more invested in the tales of the reigning Motorcycle Boy.

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