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Rusty James is the leader of a small, dying gang in an industrial town. He lives in the shadow of the memory of his absent, older brother -- The Motorcycle Boy. His mother has left, his father drinks, school has no meaning for him and his relationships are shallow. He is drawn into one more gang fight and the events that follow begin to change his life. Written by
Bruce Janson <email@example.com>
Like most who saw this film, I would guess, I was exposed to it in college, and I have to admit much of it went past me at the time. I liked the stark and unusual visuals, and I liked most of the story, but I'd be lying if I said I understood everything that was going on. Not that 'Rumble Fish' is particularly deep, just that in college I wasn't. Viewing the movie with a more mature mind now, I appreciated it much more than I did when I was nineteen.
Based on the S.E. Hinton novel (Coppola also translated 'The Outsiders', which remains remarkable even today for its amazing cast), 'Rumble Fish' follows the story of one Rusty James (Matt Dillon, in full bad-boy mode) stuck in the middle of nowhere (Tulsa, actually), dissatisfied with his life but not really bright enough to know why. His older brother, the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke, long before he became a punchline), wheels back into town from a long sojourn, and what there is of a plot begins.
Much of this movie is atmosphere, which normally irritates me but for some reason works incredibly well here. The black and white film is actually part of the story, which is in itself unusual, but it complements the storytelling and actually adds depth to the film. Though we see eighties-era cars, some of the movie has an almost fifties-feel to it, and like Rusty James, the viewer is never sure when, or where, he is. The bleak setting of Tulsa only reinforces the sense of both isolation and containment, which is the central theme of the film.
Dillon is very strong here. His seething anger can never really find a way to express itself adequately, and Dillon spends the whole film out of sorts in his own skin, giving a remarkable performance. Diane Lane, whom I suspect was hired for her stunningly good looks, has a smaller role but is very effective as the put-upon Patty. Most of the rest of the young cast unknowns or relatives or friends of the director at that point in time (Nicolas Cage, Chris Penn, Lawrence Fishburne, Tom Waits, even a very-young Sophia Coppola) are all very, very good. Waits and Fishburne have tiny roles but large presences on screen, and they stick in the viewer's mind even when they aren't there. Dennis Hopper is unusually relaxed and natural as Rusty James' dad (called only Father); sometimes Hopper can get gimmicky or artificial with his acting, but here he is subtle and wholly effective as a drunken shell of a man.
But the standout performance is really Mickey Rourke, reminding us that before he pissed his career away on crappy low-budget films with the likes of Don Johnson, he was actually a decent actor. Rourke imbues the Motorcycle Boy with a wholly different restlessness than Dillon's Rusty, and makes him both compelling and sympathetic. Honestly it helps that Rourke has some of the best lines in the film, most notably one of my favorite quotes from any film: 'You want to lead people, you have to have some place to take 'em.' Motorcycle Boy is also something of a transitional hero, knowing he is damned to live, and die, in this hellish world but making sure the path to redemption (and escape) is secured for his follower (he even says of Rusty, 'His only vice is loyalty.')
'Rumble Fish' is mostly an artsy character piece, the type of film that normally does not appeal to me, but Coppola displays such skill with the material and is so willing to subvert the very conventions of his film so that they further serve the characters and their development that the movie works, and works very well. Though the color tricks betray themselves rather badly on DVD (we were never meant to see this movie this clearly), the film still carries an enormous punch on the small screen as it did on the large. A bleak film that nonetheless carries within a message of hope, that one can escape the cages of one's surroundings if one tries hard enough.
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