[Film Review] Rumble Fish (1983)

Rumble Fish poster

Title: Rumble Fish
Year: 1983
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
S.E. Hinton
Francis Ford Coppola
Music: Stewart Copeland
Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum
Matt Dillon
Mickey Rourke
Diane Lane
Vincent Spano
Dennis Hopper
Diana Scarwid
Laurence Fishburne
Nicolas Cage
Tom Waits
Chris Penn
Sofia Coppola
Glenn Withrow
William Smith
Michael Higgins
Rating: 7.7/10

Rumble Fish 1

After his illustrious heydays in the 70s, 1980s seems to be a more productive period for Francis Ford Coppola when he delved into more scaled-down projects with more leeway for his artistic creation. RUMBLE FISH is a perfect example of this kind, released back-to-back with Coppola’s other film THE OUTSIDERS, both adapted from S.E. Hinton’s novel and met with mixed reviews at then. Nevertheless in retrospect, RUMBLE FISH is a sharply glossy achievement whose sterling lustre of the coloured fish against the canvas of high-contrast Black & White cinematography anticipated masterpieces like SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), and it is also a star-maker for Matt Dillon’s bad boy image and etches Mickey Rourke’s harrowing force of personality mixed with unfathomable mystique and magnetic sex appeal on the silver screen for eternity.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a 17-year-old Rusty James (Dillon) accepted a rival group’s challenge to meet for a one-on-one fight that night. Rusty is from a broken family, his mother left long time ago and his father (Hopper) is an inveterate drunkard. But his idol is his elder brother (Rourke), nicknamed “The Motorcycle Boy”, the leader of the gang, but has left without explanation two months ago. Rusty is striving in every way to be like the Motorcycle Boy, who returns during the heat of the fight night, and rescues Rusty from a oozing knife cut.

The reunion of the two brothers and their father is genuinely intimate, but soon Rusty detects that his brother is no longer the role model for whom he is intently aping all the way. Without any intention to revive the gang, ignoring his drug-addled girlfriend Cassandra (Scarwid) and obsessed with the Siamese fighting fish in the pet store, the Motorcycle Boy’s elusiveness and lethargy critically presages his entrapment in the dead end with no way out. Meanwhile, Rusty has his own mess to deal with, firstly he is expelled from the high school for frequent truancy, soon his girlfriend Patty (Lane) leaves him for his wily friend Smokey (Cage) because of his fooling around in a party, then he and his nerdy friend Steve (Spano) are assailed and mugged in a dark alley, during which there is the sequences of out-of-body experience unexpectedly haul viewers out of the reality the film depicts with a frisson of excitement.

After a portentous outing with his brother, underscored by the experimental soundtrack from Stewart Copeland (from THE POLICE), which conspicuously sets up an unresting and fretful atmosphere, after a motorcycle ride, the unavoidable curtain call arrives, the Motorcycle Boy is determined to release the animals in the pet store, especially the fighting fish, and states that he cannot be the brother Rusty persistently wants him to be, his demise is very much preconditioned.

Oddly chimes with Rourke’s monstrous imagery in the SIN CITY (2005) and his unwelcoming sequel, the film is shot in Black & White because of it is projected from the Motorcycle Boy’s angle in light of his colourblindness, Rourke is the narcissistic MVP, his soft-spoken tenderness is incongruous with the tough business he is capable of doing, the indulgent close-ups unsparingly zoom in on the actors’ youthful countenances, but it is Rourke, whose bleeding handsomeness betrays a pungent tinge of melancholy and disenchantment, which lingers on for a long time.

Dillon epitomises a different kind of beauty, in a simpler and more straightforward form, his chiselled body (more alluring with the cuts) and young-looking cockiness exude with hormones of adolescence, he squanders his youth away but harbours the naive hope for a brighter future in the environs of industrial coldness, he is neither smart nor rebellious enough to be the alpha male, which makes it more harrowing when his fallen idol collapses in front of him like that, Dillon is seething with vim and vigour, fickle but dauntless and eventually he is the one who gets out of the suffocating emptiness and sees the vast sea.

Lane, Hopper, Spano and Scarwid all flaunt confidently in their respective function as the superficial girlfriend, the hapless father, the devout friend and the damaged goods, they constitute a stellar supporting ensemble which also includes Cage, Fishburne, Waits, Penn and a young Sofia Coppola.

Last but not the least, it is also an astonishing job done by the avant-garde framing mechanism, embroiders each shot with an unconventional expressive vibe, the film proves to be a Coppola’s overlooked gem needs to stun and shock its new audience.

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