Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: S.E. Hinton & Francis Ford Coppola
Based on the Novel by: S.E. Hinton
Starring: Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane, Dennis Hopper, Vincent Spano, Nicolas Cage
Producer: Doug Claybourne, Fred Roos
Running Time: 94 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
Francis Ford Coppola is responsible for making four of my all time top 20 or so favourite films of all time, more than any other director. His run of work in the 70’s – The Godfather Parts 1 & 2, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now are all staggeringly great works of cinema in my eyes as well as many others’. However, his name doesn’t spring straight to mind when people ask who my favourite director is. This is largely down to the fact that after this extraordinary foursome, his work ranged from curious, to pretentious, to mediocre to downright baffling (what made him take on Jack?). Rumble Fish, made in 1983, came somewhere in between though for myself and many. I’d not seen it for a long time and with Masters of Cinema releasing a stunningly well restored Blu-Ray edition, what better time to revisit this interesting addition to Coppola’s filmography.
The film follows Rusty James (Matt Dillon), a misguided youth that wants to rule the streets with his gang of friends, much like his older brother ‘Motorcycle Boy’ (Mickey Rourke) who mysteriously disappeared a few years ago. During a violent fight (or ‘rumble’) between Rusty and another gang leader, Motorcycle Boy returns. He’s not quite his usual self though and doesn’t seem to share his younger brother’s enthusiasm for bringing back the gang warfare of old. The film becomes a coming of age tale, with Rusty struggling under the shadow of his legendary sibling and the disappointment of his alcoholic father (Dennis Hopper) and long gone mother. Lacking the intelligence and maturity of his brother, he doesn’t seem to realise that he’s better off without them all.
Rumble Fish is an odd little film and it’s easy to see why it didn’t perform very well at the box office back in the day. Shot in black and white (other than the fish of the title), the film looked like little else from the time, but stranger still is the tone. Coppola plays everything out with a heightened sense of reality. The acting is quite theatrical at times as well as the dialogue and the visual style takes front and centre throughout. Also, whilst the opening of the film is dynamic and exciting, with the first ‘rumble’ fusing violence with the balletics and visual flare of Hollywood musicals being one of the finest examples of Coppola’s skills at creating set pieces, the latter half of the film becomes quite slow and meditative. This peculiar tone and tendency towards over-indulgence makes for a film that’s hard to swallow at times, but nonetheless it is definitely deserving of your time.
What is most impressive is the film’s style. Simply put, the cinematography is astoundingly beautiful. Granted a lot of more modern black and white films get praised for their look, simply for going for the old fashioned aesthetic, but this is more than just a ‘nice-looking’ film. The use of light and shadow, perspective and movement is a joy to watch and even if the rest of the film were utter crap I’d be happy to watch the visuals for an hour and a half. The score and sound effects are equally as admirable on the style front too. The Police’s Stewart Copeland cut his film-composition teeth on Rumble Fish’s soundtrack and broke new ground in terms of using largely purely percussive instruments and experimental (at the time) looping techniques. It adds to the vaguely surreal tone of the whole thing perfectly and really brings the film alive.
Like the style, another thing that is instantly noticeable on watching the film is how incredible the cast is, not necessarily in quality of performance (a couple of the newcomers were still finding their feet), but in the sheer number of ‘stars to be’ that appear. As well as the leads Dillon and Rourke, who were themselves up and comers, you get co-stars Diane Lane, Vincent Spano and Dennis Hopper (well established at the time) as well as small roles for Nicolas Cage, Laurence Fishburne, Tom Waits, Chris Penn and even Sophia Coppola (much more effective here as Lane’s annoying sister than in Godfather Part 3). As mentioned, some of the performances aren’t great – Cage and Spano are kind of awkward, but Rourke stands out as the enigmatic Motorcycle Boy, doing mysterious and brooding much better than today’s pretty-boys in Hollywood, and Hopper does well in a less showy role than usual. I wasn’t always totally sold on Dillon, but he fits the bill and is always more than watchable.
Rumble Fish is more than the mere curiosity many label it as. It does verge on pretension in its meandering second half and its arthouse meets golden-era Hollywood tone will lose some, but as an experiment in style and an abstract take on the coming of age story, the film is always fascinating to watch.
Rumble Fish is out on 27th August on Blu-Ray, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. With its new remastered print the film looks gorgeous in HD, doing the stunning cinematography justice with perfectly balanced contrast and a clear picture. The soundtrack is clean and clear too – I watched it with the new 5.1 mix and it sounded great. I found the levels a bit low on some of the dialogue when compared to the music and sound effects, but I think much of this is intentional and part of it is down to Mickey Rourke’s soft, quiet voice.
The package has a healthy dose of extras too. As well as the choice of the original stereo mix and 5.1 version of the soundtrack, you can listen to a music and effects track to fully appreciate the work in that department or listen to a commentary by Coppola himself. I haven’t listened to this yet I must admit as I haven’t had time, but I fully intend to as I’d be interested to know a lot more about his thoughts on the film and he’s always an engaging speaker.
Behind the scenes-wise you get a video piece On Location in Tulsa, featuring interviews and behind the scenes footage and an interesting piece on the film’s soundtrack, The Percussion-Based Score. Topping this off are six deleted scenes and the original theatrical trailer as well as the obligatory booklet, which are always worth a read with the Masters of Cinema releases. So all in all a great package as usual from Eureka.