Rumble Fish
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Rumble Fish

Teenaged angst and rebellion have been the theme used in some of the cinema’s best dramatic works. From "Blackboard Jungle’ to ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ the plight of older teens set adrift in a world of violence and confusion is fertile ground for tension. In 1983 director Francis Ford Coppola added to this important genre with ‘Rumble Fish’ an often overlooked film but one that stands the test of time. The title refers to a species of fish that is so aggressive that they will fight to the death any other fish nearby. If placed in front of a mirror they will start to tear themselves apart, a fitting metaphor for the senseless anger the teen gangs display towards each other and even themselves. The head of one such gang of punks is Rusty James (Matt Dillion), fierce, fearless and careening to doom he seems to care only about his girlfriend Patty (Diane Lane) and his older brother The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), whom he idolizes. One faithful night Rusty James learns that a rival gang leader Biff Wilcox (Glenn Withrow) has called him out for a fight. Rusty James appears almost anxious to fight is enemy only to find out that what was to be a simple brawl turns far more severe when Biff produces a knife. As Rusty James is fighting for his life, pretty much holding his own an engine’s rumble is heard, out of the dark appears The Motorcycle Boy, back from an extended trip to California. The Boy saves the day crashing his bike into Biff but not in time to prevent Rusty James from getting cut. While Rusty James and his crew want a return to the old days of more formalized gang fights The Motorcycle Boy seems to regret the path he has followed and wanted to help his younger brother to find another way. The characters drift in and out of various situations, the fight, philosophize and make out with the all too willing girls that seem to abound. All of this puts a lot of strain on Rusty James’ relationship with Patty, she wants a more normal boyfriend but like many girls just can’t turn away from that bad boy. Rusty James and The Boy’s father (Dennis Hopper) is a broken down drunk. Rusty doesn’t even bother to hide the bottle of booze from him when the father walks in on him drinking. The father just happens to live in the same little apartment with his son, all hopes of parental guidance lost a long time ago. The Boy is color blind; to him, the world is literally in black and white, there is nothing bright in his life. During his trip to California, The Boy met with their mother, now living with a movie producer, a symbol that it is possible to get out.

The world created here is populated by interesting, albeit somewhat stereotypical characters. There is Steve (Vincent Spano), the nerd that gets to hang out with Steve. He is always writing down what he experiences as if it is not real to him unless he can read it. In some respects he serves as the conscience for Rusty James, always questioning while he has to be so angry. Donna (Sofia Coppola) is Patty’s Boy sister and has the required crush on Rusty James. When Rusty comes over to Patty’s house one night, Donna scoots in to try to cuddle next to him. She wants what her older sister has, a dangerous boyfriend. Smokey (Nicolas Cage) is the one that comes up with the idea of breaking in to a house to have a party. He also has the plot to take Patty away from Rusty James. The reason for the disapreance of their friend is attributed to the insidious plague of drugs, seen as the bane even in this outlaw world. Cassandra (Diana Scarwid) is a junkie, pretty but a joke among her peers. Like the character by the same name in Greek mythology, she speaks of doom that no one hears. In this setting violence comes with no reason, it is just part of their existence. They take want they want sure that their lives are short anyway.

A producer today could not afford to hire this cast now. This was a training ground for some of the best actors of their generation. Matt Dillion portrays Rusty James as a tragic figure, product of his surround but with the potential to be much more. Although he has some natural talent as a leader his position is in contention due to his eagerness to fight with little provocation. Mickey Rourke as the Motorcycle Boy is almost existential in nature. He is laconic, choosing his few words carefully. Like James Dean before him, a soft spoken, philosophical and always prevails in a fight. He talks to his brother at a local pet store teaching him about the rumble fish, musing that he doesn’t think they would fight if they were back in the river. Diane Lane holds her own in this testosterone heavy cast with a sensitive portrayal of Patty, the girl that just fell in love with the wrong boy. Francis Ford Coppola must have done some of his castings at a family get together. Nicolas Cage, born Nicholas Coppola is the nephew of the director. He did this film right after Fast Time at Ridgemont High and Valley Girl. This was the first opportunity Cage had to so the mastery he has with darker, moodier characters. As you watch, you can witness the origins of so many of his great performances. Then there is Coppola’s daughter Sofia as Donna. While her career would be more successful as a director, she instills a light almost comic touch to this dark film. Her brother Gino also has a small role here. Others that went on to greatness found here in the embryo are Laurence Fishburne and Chris Penn.

Francis Ford Coppola is one of the most sophisticated and stylized directors on the scene today. His real talent is the ability to paint detailed pictures with every scene. His use of color, symbolism, and lighting is unparalleled in cinema. Here with Rumble Fish, he takes an artier approach; he has referred to this movie as an art house film for teens. Since it is in black and white with the sole exception of the rumble fish in the aquarium, he has to depend on lighting to set and sustain the mood. You can see how this film influenced the more recent film noir, Sin City. He plays with the use of camera angles, pressing little to see the clouds whizzing by or the smash of a boot into someone. Coppola brings Rusty James’ thoughts to life as he sees Patty in various stages of undress in class or when Rusty beat in a robbery he hovers over his body, looking down at how Patty, Donna and the gang take the news of his death. He then floats back into his body to be saved once again by The Motorcycle Boy. While some scenes may appear to be from a senior in film school, this is just a great director having some fun with his art.

bulletAudio Commentary featuring Coppola
bulletNew interviews with Coppola, author and co-screenwriter S. E. Hinton, and associate producer Roman Coppola
bulletNew Conversation between Burum and Production Designer Dean Tavoularis
bulletPieces from 2005 about the Film’s Score and Production
bulletInterviews from 1983 with actors Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, and Vincent Spano and producer Doug Claybourne
bulletFrench television Interview from 1984 with Actor Mickey Rourke
bulletLocations: Looking for Rusty James, a 2013 Documentary by Alberto Fuguet about the impact of Rumble Fish
bulletNew Piece about the Film’s Existentialist Elements
bullet"Don’t Box Me In" Music Video
bulletDeleted scenes
bulletPLUS: An essay by critic Glenn Kenny

Posted 9/16/05            04/10/2017

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