I am starting to consider the very real possibility that Coppola's best work occurred, while he was adapting S.E. Hinton novels to the screen. Of course The Outsider's is a bit moderate and youthful, a far cry from his works like Apocalypse now which are considerably hyper-violent. However, Rumble Fish, his work, also an adaptation of a Hinton work of the same name, throws out some of this youthful safety in favor of a brutally honest, yet cinematically poetic film, filled with an exceptionally large amount of rising stars and individuals who would become big name actors, even a few finding work still today. Not to mention an awesome cameo, of sorts, by Tom Waits, in what may well be his best performance. It is clear in this film that Coppola is reaching far back into something profoundly sentimental, providing a film that is as experimental as it is a twisted romansbildung. Imagine a film with all the youthful bliss of The Outsiders, plus the gang oriented narrative of West Side Story, minus the pesky singing and dancing and you might be able to construct a very cursory understanding of what is offered in Rumble Fish, but even then you would still have to add the art house flair of early Scorsese, a healthy dose of Italain Neo-realism and an undeniable splash of Fellini to even begin to understand the complexities of this film. I often wondered, when, if ever, Sophia Coppola drew inspiration from her father's work and I can say with some certainty that it likely occurred with Rumble Fish, indicative of its near ethereal nature, as well as her presence in the film playing one of the younger characters. It is interesting to pair this simulacrum of a urban landscape occupied by disillusioned youth with any of the later 80's youth films in its refusal to deal with ennui and the awkwardness of growing up via hip New Wave music and witty cynicism. The world of Rumble Fish is tragic from the on set and even when you think nothing can possibly get worse, the characters engaging in this colorless world manage to fall further into the abyss.
Rumble Fish focuses primarily on the experiences of Rusty James (Matt Dillon) a rebellious young man who fancies himself the leader of a local gang, despite a self-acknowledged lack of smarts and quick wit, Rusty uses his brawn a bit to eagerly to get his way. Amongst this group include the quick affirming Smokey (Nicolas Cage), the bookish Steve (Vincent Spano), the heavy set bully B.J. (Chris Penn) and the anything but short Midget (Laurence Fishburne). Along with this group who take up passive gang activities, Rusty also vies for the affections of a local girl, who goes to a private school outside the city named Patty (Diane Lane). It is during one night of fighting with a rival gang of pill poppers that Rusty takes a shard of glass to the stomach, resulting in his being rescued by The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) who is the older brother of Rusty and a sort of local legend, as he was able to leave the city, only to return much to everyone's surpass, notably the police force who have it out for the motorcycle riding utlracool man. The emergence of his brother, causes Rusty to question his place, especially after the revelation that during his time in California, Motorcycle boy met their mother, a figure long lost from their youth, only to be replaced by their alcoholic and incapable Father (Dennis Hopper). Much of the narrative evolves to focus on Rusty's contentions with staying in school, ultimately, quashed when he is suspended, as well as attempting to win back Patty after being unfaithful at a beach party. However, nothing proves more central to the narrative than Rusty's desires to live like his brother, literally following in his shadow throughout the film an act that has considerably cataclysmic results and provide for a magnificently cinematic and tragically poignant closing moment in the film, suggesting a rather unfortunate cycle of future events not much different than those occurring throughout Rumble Fish.
A series of unconventional opening shots, at least in regards to Coppola, display a skyline of a nondescript city as clouds roll past at a unusually fast speed. This evasive world sets the stage for a narrative of entrapment and desired escapism as it relates to Rumble Fish, one in which the city proves oppressive to all those within its limits. Many characters seek escape through literal means, as is certainly the case with Patty who travels by bus to go to a private school, while others like Father use alcohol as a self-escape by nightly intoxication. Yet, the literal escape only occurs for The Motorcycle Boy, who becomes a character within a revisioning of Plato's Allegory of the Cave in that he so deeply desires to explain to other what he has seen in California and how they too can witness those things, yet his language cannot occur in a way to explain it to the cities occupants, most importantly Rusty, who admits to his lack of vocabulary. The Motorcycle Boy has seen another part of the world and returning to the city causes him to spiral into a noticeable depression, one that leads to a considerably desultory lifestyle, engaged with heroin addicts and aimless wandering through pet stores. In a moment of brilliance on the part of Hinton/Coppola, Rusty compares Motorcycle Boy to The Pied Piper suggesting that people are willing to follow him wherever he leads them, yet Motorcycle Boy admits that he has no clue where he is going, although I would suggest it is more a lack of possessing the means to explain the world outside of the black and white barriers of the city, lending to his preoccupation with the fish the only thing of color within the entire film, which when considering the Allegory of the Cave element to this film, certainly do not lack a metaphorical element. Ultimately, Motorcycle Boy realizes he failed to share this outside world with anyone and martyrs himself with the hope that Rusty can take up the torch and if the closing shot of the film is any suggestion, it has a possibility, although it will prove considerably exhaustive. Also apparently there is some reference to Camus via The Motorcycle Boy, which I did not pick up on but certainly plan to explore later.
Key Scene: While it is not the most cinematic moment of the film, the initial fight scene between Rusty and another gang leader sets the stage for the remainder of Rumble Fish and welcomes viewers to a world that is transcendent of any traditional logic or conceptualization.
This movie is glorious, at the moment only a DVD copy exists. I hope a Bluray copy is in the works and plan to wait until it is released to purchase a copy. Until then it is offered as a Watch Instantly option on Netflix.