December 9th, 2007
It’s been about 20 years since the last time I watched this movie. I wanted to see if it’s as good as I used to think it was.
Rumble Fish was directed by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now). The script is based on a novel for teenagers by S.E. Hinton.
Several of Hinton’s books were made into movies in the 1980s, usually in a naturalistic style: Tex, The Outsiders, That was then… this is now. This one is completely different. It’s abstract, stylized, poetic, dreamlike, mythic… a black-and-white art film for teenagers.
Hinton clearly didn’t object to the treatment, as she and Coppola are listed as co-screenwriters. She even makes a cameo appearance in the film.
S.E. Hinton with Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke
The cast is like a who’s who of Hollywood actors, all in their ridiculously youthful 80’s versions. Matt Dillon (There’s Something about Mary, Crash) and Mickey Rourke (Diner, The Wrestler) play Rusty James and his charismatic older brother, The Motorcycle Boy. Both are perfectly cast.
Rusty James, 17, is rough, impulsive, loyal, yearning to be like his brother. Here he leads his boys into battle.
The Motorcycle Boy (he has no other name), 21, is a gentle, enigmatic figure with a knowing half-smile. Many of the characters in the film, including his father and The Motorcycle Boy himself, think he’s crazy. He’s the Christ figure for this movie.
Rusty James’s girlfriend Patty is played by a young Diane Lane (Must Love Dogs, Tuscan Sun). Patty’s toothy little sister is Coppola’s daughter Sofia, who also appeared in The Godfather: Part III as Mary Corleone. Now all grown up, she is probably best known as the director of The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette.
Coppola, Dillon, Lane
Rusty James wants to follow in his brother’s footsteps by bringing gang warfare back to the neighbourhood. In his crew are a young Nicolas Cage (star of Moonstruck, Face Off, City of Angels, and many others) and a young Christoper Penn. (Brother of Sean. I know him best from Reservoir Dogs.)
Also on the scene is a young Laurence Fishbourne (The Matrix).
Down at Benny’s Diner where the kids play pool and drink coke, Benny himself is played by the young Tom Waits in full-on mumbling hipster mode. And the boys’ alcoholic dad is played by Dennis Hopper (Blue Velvet, Stand By Me).
The story is simple. The Motorcycle Boy has been out to California, and when he gets back he doesn’t believe in gangs anymore. The title symbol refers to some fighting fish in a pet store. There are two colours of fish, red and blue, and they are separated by a glass barrier so they won’t tear each other to bits. (If you hold a mirror up to the glass, The Motorcycle Boy says, they will tear themselves to bits.) They are the only objects rendered in colour. The Motorcycle Boy wants to release them into the river so they won’t fight anymore.
Here’s my verdict: I still love this movie. I love how it’s shot, the dreamy cityscapes with steam and smoke blanketing the ground and huge white pigeons fluttering around everywhere. Coppola shows the passing of time with low-angle time-lapse shots of buildings with shadows floating across them, clouds scudding by at hyper-speed. The soundtrack is full of enigmatic clicking and hissing noises that you hardly notice until you hear them, and then you can’t stop listening to them. And the ending still makes me cry.
The whole thing is like a modern Greek myth, full of important secrets that you should attend to on pain of your life. (I don’t know if this is true, but it seems to be. Don’t forget we’re in movie land.) I think it’s one of the all-time greats. You should watch it if you haven’t, and if you haven’t seen it since the 80s, it’s time to get it again. It’s out on DVD.