Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Rumble Fish manages to tackle a great deal in only ninety minutes. One of its director’s most well know film, The Godfather: Part II (1974), is over three hours long but he is able to make a film just as rich that is half the length or more. Many films procrastinate, but Rumble Fish both feels long in scope yet physically is brisk. This befits a film of adolescence and how short it is even if it feels long for the youths. A young man Rusty James (Matt Dillon) idolises his older brother, the quiet voiced Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), but when he returns he is shown to be unable to, without “the smarts” of him and within a period where he is completely adrift. The monochrome clouds move rapidly above him and others in fluid rich swathes and time peters, Tom Waits behind the counter of his diner expressing how none of the youths realise they have little time, shot from the angled perspective of the wall clock looking down on him too. Days go on but for Rusty James he is nearing a drastic change in his life. His relationship with Patty (Diane Lane), youthful exuberance, who he obsesses over in classes rather than pay attention to the lessons, is precarious. His life is going nowhere and his father (Dennis Hopper) is alone and stuck in an alcoholic dependency. The Motorcycle Boy, and his younger brother’s view of him, is not who he thought he was despite the graffiti of “The Motorcycle Boy Reigns” on street corners.
Never does Rumble Fish become pretentious despite the options that could have lead it there. It is too simple and clear in its thoughts to confuse them. It is cool in rich black-and-white with echoing post-synch sound. It has Dillon, Rourke, Waits, Lane, Lawrence Fishburne, Nicolas Cage and Chris Penn onscreen. Even an adolescent Sofia Coppola in a small role as Patty’s little sister, making the lambasting of her performance, older, in The Godfather: Part III (1990) overdoing it even if it was justified. But beneath the timeless veneer, motorcycle jacketed rebels against arcade machines, it’s about the restlessness of youth. Aimless, not connected to adult life. The violence, Rusty James continually battered and experiencing an out-of-body experience in one such incident, as much the pent-up desires of the males asserting themselves as the desire for sex with girls their age. The fighting fish of the title, bright colours, are trapped and feel the need to assault even their own mirror images. Coppola is controlled, nuanced in every moment angled and lit in an interesting way, but he is as much obsessed with his characters meaning a lot for himself and the viewers. His characters are trapped in situations against their own wills and have to make their way out of it, drastically changing by the end. Gene Hackman against his paranoia in The Conversation (1974). Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (1979). Michael Corleone and his divine punishment by the end of The Godfather trilogy. Mina Murray and Dracula in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). The protagonists of Tetro (2009) and Tim Roth, against his superhuman burden, in Youth Without Youth (2007). Like them all, Rusty James is not in control of what happens to him, barring the final decisions, having to decide after it’s too late what to do next. The music, by Stewart Copeland, is precise as clockwork and as varying and changing as a heartbeat. It is cool but weaves with sincerity. Filtered through dialogue by S.E. Hinton, author of the original source novel, Rumble Fish is cool but never aloof, as varying as the drama changes even in its style. Its end is at the ocean and the route to it is justified and felt. In only ninety minutes you are there for characters like Rusty James and the Motorcycle Boy and feel everything that happens. Even if I am distant from their lifestyles and older than them, a young man like myself cannot help but feel, through this stylish film, how my youth is fresh and running quickly on the clock too.