Rusty James (Matt Dillon) longs for the days of gang warfare and the loyalties borne out of life in the gritty streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rumble Fish is the tale of a local street tough trying to live up to the perceived reputation of his older brother Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). We’re taken by Director Francis Ford Coppola through the streets and tight alleys of the city through the eyes of Rusty and his small group of toughs. The local pool hall, soda shops, store fronts, and fire escape platforms act as the backdrop and hangout for James and his pals. All being shot in glorious black and white, allowing the shadows to influence the film’s atmosphere.
Coppola utilizes creative compositional framing of his characters and their movement. Never feeling amateurish, despite his diversion away from spectacularly large narratives. This is a smaller film from one of the great auteurs of the 70’s new hollywood group. But it has such a deeply personal connection to it’s characters and world it is no less than Coppola’s best work. We follow Rusty James through the skirmishes he and his gang (a young Nic Cage and Chris Penn) have with other warring factions. We hear Rusty make multiple references to his older Brother as someone who’s reputation of being a respected gang leader and troublemaker in the streets is something he craves to obtain.
When he’s not recovering from his injuries resulting from street fights, Rusty courts his classmate girlfriend Patty (Diane Lane). It’s remarkable how young everyone in this film is. Nicholas Cage, Chris Penn, Diane Lane, Dillon. They’re youth is breathtaking in how they own their performances, already so confident and realized. Dennis Hopper plays the two boys Father, who is a welfare dependent alcoholic. He comes around occasionally to piece together the differences in the two boys. But is largely out of the picture, barely able to care for himself.
Through the breaks from “rumbling” and healing from his injuries, Motorcycle Boy shares with Rusty that he has no desire to start up gang activity. He points out that he doesn’t really want the gang life he talks about. That its a misperceived ideal of something to aspire to. The only color in Rumble Fish resides in the blue and red “rumble fish” that float in the pet store front on the main street of town. The arc of Motorcycle Boy is geared to the tragic inevitability of the life that Rusty James so largely covets for himself, and the pride he thinks it will give him. Loyalty is his only vice, Motorcycle Boy tells him and we understand that self destruction is in this kid’s blood. It is only at the very end of the film that Rusty James realizes that the person he thought he wanted to be is nothing but a dead end. Even his friends who rumble with him on the regular, tell him that no one wants to die.
James seems to behave in a way that puts all that he has on the line as if it’s his destiny to find his reason for dying. That to live up to some kind of masculine ideal of who he is supposed to be, he must sacrifice his well being and future to do so. It’s a heartbreaking portrayal of masculine angst and the foolish naïveté of the unexperienced youth, striving to become something more. He is such a woefully confused character, and for all the talk of Motorcycle Boy being crazy just like their Mother who ran off years prior, it’s Rusty James who reminds me of Travis Bickle. Motorcycle Boy in a pivotal scene discusses their Mother who ran off to California, married some movie producer. He talks about California, and how it’s something to be seen. It’s only at the very end once James sees it for himself that we’re left with any idea as to what is to become of him.
Rumble Fish is a very good film and one of Francis Ford Coppola’s best. It’s personal, beautiful, and attempts to showcase the ennui and disaffection of masculine youth. All with the artistic shadow and light choices of a film noir. Coppola expertly utilizes the black and white canvas to place his characters in late 60’s middle America. The camera is placed intimately on the street as we follow James throughout his daily life. It’s a simple enough story that is expertly shot. And watch Rusty James stumble around making the right choices, and what motivates him all along to the point of having to change who he is. Dillon evokes a lot of empathy from simply watching him. Wide eyed youth struggling with where he finds himself in his world. Through plot revelations he comes to terms with those around him not being as loyal as he thought, putting his own personal beliefs to the test. It’s a moment of progression from child to adult and we get to see it happen in real time, it’s a wonderful scene.
Coppola made a wonderful art film that at times does feel self indulgent and baroque, but is nevertheless visionary in execution and impact. It wasn’t reviewed very well upon it’s release, and had various walkouts when it played at festivals. Since then it has been lauded as visionary and even received a Criterion Collection release in 2017. Rumble Fish is an intimate portrayal of a disaffected youth that’s intimate, beautiful, and illuminating.