The Motorcycle Boy’s Never Coming Back.
In 1983, two Francis Ford Coppola adaptations of S.E. Hinton novels – The Outsiders and Rumble Fish – were released in theatres. Both movies placed the spotlight on young men involved in street gangs and both featured a cast of talented youngsters who would soon go on to stardom (including Matt Dillon, who plays the lead role in both movies). Additionally, both films were made on a $10 million budget. However, while The Outsiders made a respectable $25 million at the box office, Rumble Fish made only $2.5 million. The reason? The Outsiders is a fairly straightforward piece of classical storytelling, while Rumble Fish is a wildly unconventional experimental film.
Neither movie stands alongside the heights of Coppola’s career (hardly an insult – how many movies reach the level of The Godfather I and II, The Conversation or Apocalypse Now?), but jointly, they form a fascinating examination of how fairly similar subject matter can be approached in dramatically different ways artistically. Coppola described Rumble Fish as, “an arthouse film for teenagers,” and that’s exactly what he delivers: it has the reckless energy of a movie aimed squarely at young audiences, and the cinematically literate experimentation of a movie aimed at film scholars.
Dillon plays Rusty James, a name you’ll remember due to the fact that the other characters in the movie seem to say his name every thirty seconds (“Rusty James” is to this movie with the f-bomb is to Glengarry Glen Ross). He’s a member of a local gang, and one of his rivals is spoiling for a fight. Despite the “no rumbles allowed” truce that had been established by Rusty James’ older brother Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler) – who has been out of town for the last couple of months – Rusty James agrees to the fight. However, just as the fight begins, Motorcycle Boy returns to town.
The film is light on conventional plotting, instead placing its focus on the many key relationships in Rusty James’ life. There’s his budding romance with Patty (Diane Lane, Man of Steel), a local schoolgirl who is understandably wary of her new boyfriend’s wandering eye and penchant for violence. There’s his relationship with his father (Dennis Hopper, Easy Rider), a good-natured alcoholic who lives on welfare. There’s his relationship with Motorcycle Boy, who seems to have moved past the gang lifestyle Rusty James embraces so eagerly. Finally, there’s his relationship with all the other members of his gang, who alternately idolize and dismiss him.
The characters rarely emerge as anything more than standard types, though the actors do a great deal to enliven the material. The richest character by far is Rourke’s Motorcycle Boy, who seems to exist outside the clattering chaos that defines Rusty James’ life and has seen enough violence and turbulence to gain a bit of philosophical perspective. Rourke is young here, but he comes across as a man with an old, weary soul. He’s experienced enough rumbles to know that they won’t solve anything. The contrast between Rourke’s quiet performance and Dillon’s loud, jittery one is the film’s most fascinating element (and its most autobiographical one, as Coppola drew heavily on his own relationship with his older brother August in his portrait of the relationship).
In the end, the film’s look and tone are far more memorable than its story or characters. Stewart Copeland’s energetic, occasionally abrasive score brings a jarring energy to the proceedings, stripping the film of sentimentality and giving it a youthful petulance. The slick black-and-white cinematography steers clear of verite realism, opting for striking angles and attention-grabbing creative choices (like Coppola’s decision to infrequently allow bright bursts of color to appear in a handful of scenes). In a lot of ways, it feels like Coppola’s version of a French New Wave film. I never quite connected with the material, but it’s hard not to admire a movie that strikes such a unique tone.
Rumble Fish (Blu-ray) Criterion offers an exceptional 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. Just look at the opening sequence in the bar: you can see every drop of sweat on each character’s face, and the level of background detail is similarly impressive. Depth is strong throughout, black levels are healthy and there’s a warm, thick layer of grain present that gives the image an appealingly filmic look. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track isn’t particularly immersive, but the sound quality is exceptional and everything is well-balanced (Copeland’s score sounds particularly rich). Supplements include an audio commentary, a feature-length documentary helmed by Alberto Fuguet (“Locations: Looking for Rusty James”), excellent new interviews with Coppola (20 minutes), S.E. Hinton (20 minutes), Dillon and Lane (22 minutes), cinematographer Stephen H. Burum and production designer Dean Tavoularis (31 minutes) and associate producer Roman Coppola (8 minutes), an archival interview with Mickey Rourke, excerpts of archival interviews with other cast and crew members, featurettes (“On Location in Tulsa,” “Rumble Fish: The Percussion-Based Score” and “Camus for Kids”), deleted scenes, a music video and a leaflet featuring an essay by Glenn Kenny. An extraordinary package overall.
Rumble Fish is an intriguing companion piece to The Outsiders, and ultimately the more interesting, ambitious half of the double-feature. It’s a striking piece of work, and Criterion’s incredible supplemental package makes this Blu-ray release an easy recommendation.