Rumble Fish was one of many films Francis Ford Coppola did post-One from the Heart to try to recoup the costs of that film. It was made right after Coppola’s previous adaptation of S.E. Hilton novel The Outsiders. It is easily his most artistically satisfying and best since his magnum opus Apocalypse Now. It is also a one of Coppola’s personal 5 favourites of his own work.
It tells the story of Rusty James (played by a very young Matt Dillon, who has starred in 3 of 4 S.E. Hilton adaptations) who is a young but not book-smart but very street-smart teenager who is a member of a rag-tag gang of youths. The film starts with him taking up an offer for a fight with a rival gang leader Biff Wilcox. Matt Dillon’s older brother the legendary Motorcycle Boy (played by a pre-plastic surgery Mickey Rourke) had made a truce between the gangs to stop the rumbles before he left for California. Rusty decides to go ahead with the fight despite this. The Motorcycle Boy mysterious comes back the end of the fight and wins it for his young brother. The Motorcycle Boy like his alcoholic father (Dennis Hopper) is intellectual and has no time for gang fights despite he can knock anyone out easily. The rest of the film plays out like a Greek tragedy and is also about time running out for Motorcycle Boy.
The film’s influences are from Greek Mythology with references to the story of Cassandra but also it’s a film that is very referential to film. The film is very of referential stylistic decisions inspired by German expressionism, surrealism and film noir. The film is almost dreamlike in tone, it’s set in Tulsa, Oklahoma like all of Hilton’s stories but unlike his previous The Outsiders, which is much more like a old fashioned style almost Douglas Sirk esq. in it’s use of colour and obviously constructed sets, not that different from One From the Heart.
It’s shot in high contrast black & white cinematography, which is not that different from the better works of Orson Welles, some shots are reminiscent of his version of The Trial. The film also has very crooked angles, smoke and fog which reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It also has very extreme close-ups at time that are really innovative. The film also has early usage of time-lapse photography inspired by Koyaanisqatsi which Coppola’s Zoetrope distributed. The film also is completely in black and white except 2 scenes near the end which obviously a reference to the Motorcycle Boy’s colour blindness.
The film has a wonderful cast with a wonderful performance by Mickey Rourke at the height of his power in the 80s. Matt Dillon is great as Rusty James and also great supporting roles from Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne (who Coppola discovered in Apocalypse Now), Coppola’s nephew Nicolas Cage, Chris Penn and the always wonderful Tom Waits. Mickey Rourke approached his performance as “an actor who no longer finds his work interesting” which perfectly sums it up. Coppola also gave him books by French absurdist/existentialist writer Albert Camus and based his look partly on a famous photo of him.
The film includes a wonderful score by Stewart Copeland of The Police. It uses streets sounds, strange rhythms, sounds of clocks so in short a very interesting and innovative like the film it’s in. It also features a wonderful commissioned song for the film by Stan Ridgway of Wall of Voodoo, which is probably my favourite song written specifically for a film.
Rumble Fish is hands down Coppola’s most underrated and misunderstood film, which has a lot more depth than it was given credit during it’s first run. It has been luckily re-evaluated over the subsequent years. I consider it his 2nd best film behind Apocalypse Nowa nd yes that includes Godfather 1 and 2. It’s a strange stylistic film that is unlike any other film with some great performances. It has been recently added to Masters of Cinema range by Eureka Entertainment and rightly so.