Rumble Fish (1983)


(director/writer: Francis Ford Coppola; screenwriter: original story by S.E. Hinton; cinematographer: Stephen H. Burum; editor: Barry Malkin; cast: Mickey Rourke (The Motorcycle Boy), Matt Dillon (Rusty James), Diane Lane (Patty), Diana Scarwid (Cassandra), Dennis Hopper (Father), Vincent Spano (Steve), Tom Wait (Benny), Nicholas Cage (Smokey), Larry Fishburne (Midget); Runtime: 94; Zoetrope; 1983)

“A seminal work in teen films.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A seminal work in teen films, shot appropriately in B/W (except for the fish). It tells the story of troubled teens in Tulsa and their yearnings for the “good old days” of gang wars. It is an arty (some critics say pretentious) film about a punky street kid, Rusty James (Dillon), who idolizes his older brother, “The Motorcycle Boy” (Rourke). He has been a hoodlum legend for the kids in the neighborhood, but now has second thoughts about his life as he returns from California to give his brother a chance to escape the life he is stuck in. Their alcoholic father is played by Dennis Hopper, with all the odd tics and mannerisms he seems to muster for the peculiar characters he always seems to play.

Rumble fish are fighting fish who will try and kill themselves if shown their own reflection, and other fish if they are taken out of their natural habitat and placed in fish tanks. That is the message of the film, as Rourke’s last desperate act is to free these pet store fish to the river. He also exhorts his brother to ride away from his home city. It is his hope that by getting his brother far away from his bad upbringing, he will learn to find out who he really is.

What works very well for Coppola, is the overall mood he captures of how the inner city kids react to their identity crisis. We see how they are turned off by school and how they don’t have proper parental guidance; it is also pointed out that if these kids had the proper role models things might be a lot different for them. Their main problem is that they find themselves in troublesome situations that they can’t handle by themselves. Rusty can fearlessly fight and he can attract girls, but he can’t think straight. He can’t be a gang leader as one of his street pals, Smokey (Cage), tells him: “because he is on a death course and no one would follow him for long, no one really wants to die with him.”

“The Motorcycle Kid” is an existential hero, saying very little; but if you get into his rap, he is more likely to be a hero found in a Camus story than in a teen film. That makes his characterization seem controversial and arbitrary here. He is a gigantic adult figure as compared to the others we see in the film such as his alcoholic father, and the neighborhood cop who hates The Motorcycle Kid’s guts for being a hero to these kids. The Kid has a swagger to him and a way about him that makes him larger than life. He sees the world without a true sense of colors. Besides not being prejudiced, he is actually “physically” color blind. We see how this affects him when he rides his cycle through a red light and how he walks the drug infested streets in town, oblivious of all the different shades of faces he sees and the danger that is all around him.

The Motorcycle Kid’s kid brother Rusty is dumb he just doesn’t get things, and is heading for a disastrous life that he won’t be able to turn around. When he has an affair with a girl he really seems to like, Patty (Diane), he loses her because he doesn’t have enough common sense to treat her right. Everything Rusty does ends in violence or in an incomprehensible situation. Rusty has no plans for himself and gives no thought about the future. There was not really anything new revealed about this sort of character that hasn’t been seen in other teen films. Though the film does have a gritty feel to it and a good deal of intelligence in how it was presented.

I’m on the side of those who liked this emotionally overwrought stylized film, adapted from a novel by S.E. Hinton, warts and all. It brought a higher quality to this teen genre film than usually seen in such films, though I doubt if it would reach the troubled kids the film was about. In all probability, they would not choose to see such an arresting film. To the film’s credit, it was not just a glossy look at the kids: it had the good sense to stay true to its theme without just blaming society alone for the problems presented.