Rumble Fish (1983) Criterion Special Edition Blu Ray (****)

By John H. Foote

Smarting from the critical bashing he took on One from the Heart (1982), Francis Ford Coppola took the advice of a teenaged fan and read The Outsiders, then immediately bought the rights to it for a film.

On the heels of The Outsiders (1983) a bloated, overwrought film based on SE Hinton’s beloved, classic novel about teen angst and warring gangs, came Rumble Fish (1983). A smaller, more intimate story than The Outsiders (1983) Coppola shot the film immediately after The Outsiders (1983) in the same locales of Oklahoma, the film was released to little fanfare, though sharp-eyed critics admired the film. Perhaps because The Outsiders (1983) was crucified by critics despite making good money, audiences were wary of another Coppola teen film, though in hindsight, I suspect they regret that now. Through the years it quietly became a cult classic, and post-Apocalypse Now (1979) is considered one of Coppola’s finest films.

It is no secret Coppola has not made a film to compete with anything he did in the seventies. It was said he lost his edge, but watching Rumble Fish (1983) and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) makes it evident his edge was intact.

Edgy, raw, surrealistic, he shot the film in black and white in the rough, even seedier areas of Oklahoma, giving us no clear idea as to the time frame. Time is virtually a secondary character, as we come to see the characters are in so many ways running out of it. Clouds hurtle past us as time flies by, there are clocks, massive in size placed around the areas, and the hands of clocks in diners speed through the day. One clock contains no hands, and when one character leans against it, we see that for him time has stopped.

Rusty James (Matt Dillon) is the leader of a gang, getting by mostly on the reputation of his brother, known only as Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) and finds himself at war with a rival group, and is fighting when his brother shows up after a long time away. With a quiet voice, nearly hushed and sweet smile, we see how quickly that turns to rage when Rusty is badly cut.

Motorcycle Boy is a prince out of another time, blessed and cursed with being great, not merely good, but great at everything he does. A natural leader people just watch him, unaware of the inner turmoil he is dealing with. He no longer wants to be followed, he seeks only peace which he found in California for the time he was there. He clearly adores his little brother, but is painfully aware that Rusty is not cut out for gang life or to lead.

Mickey Rourke was stunning, other worldly as Motorcycle Boy. Going deaf, already color blind, he sees and hears the world differently than the rest of those around him. He knows he is torn apart by life, but does not know the way out until he sees some fighting fish in the local pet shop. Quiet, ever watchful, haunted and haunting, Rourke is brilliant in the part, a man born out of time. On admiring onlooker describes him “as a young prince” which is perfect, good at everything he attempts he is indeed a living legend.

Matt Dillon attempts to give a method performance and does well, but next to Rourke he comes off as just another young actor. Dillon has always been quite gifted, as the tormented young hood in The Outsiders (1983), the small-time drug addict in Drugstore Cowboy (1989), the doomed restaurant owner in To Die For (1995), the contradictive cop in Crash (2005) and many others. But here he is working with the Brando of this generation, and never comes close to Rourke’s genius. Where Rourke is great, beyond words, Dillon is merely good.

Young Nicolas Cage, Diane Lane, Tom Waits, and Sofia Coppola make appearances in the film, best of all being Dennis Hopper as the brothers drunken father, an obviously educated man undone by his drinking and loss of his wife, who left him years earlier. Did he start drinking because she left him, or did she leave him because he could not stop drinking? The question is never answered, but with a single look at his sons, we understand the depth of love he has for them. The same is true of Rourke, when he looks at his little brother, or lovingly stares at an old photograph of the two of them as boys. He loves his brother, but as long as he is alive, Rusty James will try and live up to what he thinks he has too, being Motorcycle Boy’s little brother.

The film opened at the New York Film Festival to middling reviews, many critics not understanding why he made the film in the first place?

Coppola found himself with this strangely hypnotic film that no one really to see. I remember seeing it opening night in 1983 and loved the film and was bewildered when it failed at the box office, becoming a cult classic on video and now Blu Ray. It was bold, it was daring, it was interesting and the sort of challenge Coppola was known to make. Criterion offers film buffs a great chance to see this film beautifully restored to its pristine black and white.

Beyond that, the film offers a glimpse of a young Mickey Rourke when he was not bloated, pumped up on steroids, his face looking like raw hamburger, his eyes now slanted, the result of far too many plastic surgeries. When Rourke made his comeback with his Oscar nominated performance in The Wrestler (2008), many, myself included were stunned at his looks. Gone was the very good looking young man, he of the sweet smile, soft voice, and gentle manner that could suddenly erupt in violence. Life had been tough on Rourke, and in many instances, he was his own worst enemy.

In the eighties he was a major young talent, a rising star, the heir apparent to Brando and De Niro. His performance, however brief in Body Heat (1981) as an agonist was alarming in its intensity and raw power. Outstanding work came a year later in Diner (1982) and a star had been born.

He made this film for Coppola, and then The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984) in which he and the equally great Eric Roberts put on an acting showcase as two scheming cousins looking for a big score. He then gave two of his greatest performances, the first as a tough New York cop in Year of the Dragon (1985) in which Rourke is astounding, he and John Lone the saving graces of an otherwise racist film. Directed by industry pariah Michael Cimino, the film was attacked by critics, but well liked by audiences, and became a cult classic on home video.

The second film that saw Rourke at his finest was Angel Heart (1987) where he portrayed a private eye in post WWII America hired by a mysterious client to find a man who has disappeared. Rourke is superb, his scenes with Robert De Niro as the devil having a lovely snap to them. The film landed afoul of the censors given Lisa Bonet’s nude scenes with Rourke. Bonnet was a member of the cast of the wholesome The Cosby Show, which now seems hypocritical does it not? After this film he made others, some good, some not and gradually fell out of favour in Hollywood so he got into pro boxing.

He came back into film slowly, working for Coppola in The Rainmaker (1997), finally landing a major role in Sin City (2005) which he followed with The Wrestler (2008).

Sadly, he seems to be back in obscurity, but through film, which is forever we can always be reminded what he was. In many ways he was like the young prince Motor Yale Boy was said to be, blessed and cursed.

Rumble Fish (1983) has much to admire, and the Criterion print is quite remarkable

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