“Every now and then, a person comes along who has a different view of the world than the usual person. It doesn’t make them crazy. I mean... an acute perception, man, that doesn’t make you crazy. However, sometimes, it can drive you crazy – acute perception.”
A potent example of remarkably effective style over substance, Francis Ford Coppola’s experimental mood piece, Rumble Fish, was a Box Office disaster upon release, but has gone on to become a much-loved cult classic in the years since. Boasting a cast of young actors who would almost all go on to become household names, and featuring one of Mickey Rourke’s best golden era performances, it blends striking black and white visuals with a daring percussive score, resulting in the director’s most atmospheric work since Apocalypse Now.
The story follows the teenage wannabe tough-guy Rusty James, living in a small town, and struggling to get out from under the shadow of his older brother, the renowned Motorcycle Boy – something of a legend, and the man who laid down the law prohibiting violent inter-gang ‘rumbles’. Since the Motorcycle Boy disappeared, Rusty James has been plagued by his brother’s reputation, so when the leader of a rival gang challenges him to a fight, he decides to go against his brother’s enforced detente and accept the challenge. Setting in motion of chain of events that sees the Motorcycle Boy return for one last ride, Rusty James is forced to confront his own sense of identity, accept his broken family, and deal with the betrayals of those around him.
“You know, if there were gangs around like in the old days, I’d be running things – not you. You’d be second lieutenant. You might have gotten by for a while on the Motorcycle Boy’s rep, but you have to be smart to run things. You ain’t got your brother’s brains. Nobody would follow you into a fight because you’d get people killed – and nobody wants to be killed.”
Inspired to write her most famous novel – The Outsiders – at the age of just 15, novelist Susan Eloise Hinton would, almost a decade later, complete her only other famous work, Rumble Fish. Both were young adult novels, telling 60s-set tales of troubled youths, adolescence, young love, gang violence, parental irresponsibility, and family dysfunction. The violence, swearing and arguable glorification of gangs were seen as quite controversial at the time, particularly given the intended age-group of readers. Yet only a few years after Rumble Fish was published, director Francis Ford Coppola – who had already been through his Godfather highs, before the excesses of Apocalypse Now closed out the seventies with a curtail on directorial omnipotence – became interested in adapting the piece.
Coppola was not unaccustomed to making relatively small-scale, personal projects – between the first two Godfather movies he wrote, produced and directed the excellent Gene Hackman thriller The Conversation – but Rumble Fish would be arguably his most personal project of all time, drawn to the story largely because of his own relationship with his late brother, with themes paralleled between the two main characters in the novel, Rusty James and his idolised big brother, The Motorcycle Boy. Coppola would eventually dedicate the film to his brother. Adapting S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders first – it was a personal request from some high school students who were inspired by the novel, however he was largely motivated to complete that project because he knew that it would, in turn, lead to Rumble Fish – Coppola would shoot the films almost back-to-back, using the same production crew and some of the same actors. Of course he was clearly more invested in the latter, working on the screenplay with the original novelist herself, and actually writing it during the production of The Outsiders.
“California’s like a beautiful, wild girl on heroin... who’s high as a kite, thinking she’s on top of the world, not knowing she’s dying even if you show her the marks.”
Whilst they would both be similar tales of troubled youth and gang violence, stylistically they would be leagues apart, and where the all-star teen cast of The Outsiders would find success and actually help spark off the brat pack film era of the 80s, Rumble Fish would flop at the cinemas and face walk-outs from audiences and critics alike, confused as to what the hell it was about. Indeed, Coppola would actually declare “Rumble Fish will be to The Outsiders what Apocalypse Now was to The Godfather”, something which may well have highlighted his intention to make them very different, and prepared people for a mood piece in the same vein as his Heart of Darkness tribute, but the statement certainly did not shed any light over what to expect from the actual story.
Interestingly, I’m not entirely sure even Coppola himself managed to retain a grasp on his central story in Rumble Fish – he was too busy setting the scene, and crafting the necessary atmosphere, and any elements of a coherent story were soon swept up in the ensuing chaos. Strangely, however, this was fairly fortuitous, as the film remains so potently enthralling not because of its complex narrative, but because it is so damn evocative: the mood itself symbolically mirrors the central themes.
“Themes? What themes?” you may ask, doing your best Michael Caine-as-Alfred impersonation, but Rumble Fish was peppered with symbolism – some of it so front-and-centre that it was arguably hiding in plain sight. Perhaps the most important theme was that of time – and time running out. From his time-lapse shots of the clouds passing by at speed, to his use of clocks – in almost every scene – to one of his most obvious shots: Rusty James and The Motorcycle Boy standing opposite a cop, with a giant clock-face between them (without any clock hands), which is being towed away on the back of a lorry.
“Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see when you’re young, you’re a kid, you got time – you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years here, a couple of years there... it doesn’t matter. The older you get you say, “How much I got? I got thirty-five summers left.” Think about it. Thirty-five summers.”
The avant-garde black-and-white style, shot using the spherical cinematographic process, paid tribute to not only the works of Orson Welles (see Touch of Evil), but also French New Wave cinema and German expressionism, making excellent use of shadows, oblique angles and prevalent smoke and fog to noticeably add to the mood. Coppola also employed hand-held camera shots to create an uneasy feeling, and the production was noteworthy for pioneering numerous filming techniques which had not previously been employed.
The experimental score only furthered this theory, a mainly percussive soundtrack which was also intended to highlight the theme of time running out, using diagetic elements – like the typewriter sounds in the Principal’s office – and beats and sounds which few ever come across, let alone heard as part of a movie soundtrack. It was composed by the drummer from The Police, who himself would use then-high-tech equipment: a Musync which recorded film, frame by frame, on videotape, with the image on top, the dialogue in the middle, and the musical staves on the bottom so that everything was synchronised perfectly.
Ironically, the only thing that they really struggled with was the dialogue – strange to think about when you realise that it’s such an eminently quotable and poetic film. Mickey Rourke would be the biggest culprit here, his quiet, reflective delivery leading to the crew nicknaming the production “Mumble Fish”. Of course, this would go on to be one of Rourke’s greatest performances from this era.
“If you’re going to lead people, you have to have somewhere to go.”
Rourke’s one of the greatest comeback kings of all-time. The man had it made in the eighties – he had the looks and the presence, and the acting chops to back it up; he worked with Spielberg (on 1941), Michael “Deer Hunter” Cimino (Heaven’s Gate, Year of the Dragon), Walkabout’s Nicholas Roeg (Eureka), Fatal Attraction’s Adrian Lyne (9½ Weeks), Get Carter’s Mike Hodges (A Prayer for the Dying), Mississippi Burning’s Alan Parker (Angel Heart) and Walter “48 Hours” Hill (Johnny Handsome) – but he was almost as famous for the roles he turned down (48 Hours, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Rain Man, Tombstone and The Silence of the Lambs), as he was for his standout performances (most notably Rumble Fish and Angel Heart).
Come the 90s and, at the past-his-physical-prime age of 39, he ill-advisedly decided to go back to his teenage ‘profession’ as an amateur boxer, and would be undefeated over his limited career of 8 fights. It was a personal challenge, and whilst he may have won in the ring – retrieving some semblance of self-respect, which he felt that he had lost as an actor – it came with a price, and Rourke’s return to acting was a tough sell. His face, now broken and busted from the punishing fights and the ensuing botched plastic surgery, and his past reputation as a bad boy in Hollywood, meant that he was starved of good roles for the best part of a decade.
The method-acting rebel, who was once dubbed “the next Marlon Brando”, was stuck doing films opposite a then-cocaine-fuelled Van Damme (Double Team) and a ‘young’ Danny Trejo (Point Blank), and foolishly turned down Bruce Willis’s role of Butch in Pulp Fiction – Tarantino wrote it for him originally – and have his part cut from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line at the behest of the film studios, and it was not until the mid-2000s, when directors Tony Scott (Man on Fire, Domino) and Robert Rodriguez (Once Upon a Time in Mexico) would help him forge his way back into Hollywood, culminating in 2005’s Sin City, which was arguably the first big step in his comeback story. The long-anticipated sequel is finally in the works, and I can’t wait for him to return to the role of Marv, a character who was simply made for him.
Of course now the man is known for his Oscar-deserving, symbolically semi-autobiographical performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler – with enough weight behind him to bring his almost-consistently refined contributions to Big Screen villains in both Iron Man 2 and The Immortals – but back in the Eighties, he was still testing the water with his newfound gifts, and Rumble Fish was arguably his biggest part thus far. Whilst he may not have played the lead character, he easily stole the show, playing the legendary Motorcycle Boy with gentle reserve, intimate contemplation and distant aloofness. It’s no coincidence that Coppola shot the film in the same way that the Motorcycle Boy sees the world – completely colour blind (and half-deaf, as evoked in the soundtrack) – and whilst Rusty James may be the protagonist, it’s Rourke’s philosophical idol who really draws you in.
Rourke would seek inspiration in his look from French author Albert Camus (complete with cigarette drooping out of his mouth) – indeed Coppola would give him works from Camus, as well as a biography on Napoleon to get into the mindset of the character – and he commented once that he approached the part “as an actor who no longer finds his work interesting”, mirroring the Motorcycle Boy: a famous gang leader who is no longer interested in leading a gang (and foretelling his own feelings towards Hollywood). From his quiet poise, dressed more like a poet than a gang leader, to his subtle touches – his eyes welling up as his dad attempts to explain to his younger brother what drives him crazy – it remains one of Rourke’s most accomplished performances.
“Contrary to popular belief, your brother isn’t crazy. He’s merely miscast in a play. He was born in the wrong era, on the wrong side of the river, with the ability to be able to do anything that he wants to do and finding nothing that he wants to do. I mean nothing.”
Matt Dillon would play the ostensible lead (the third performance he would do in a S.E. Hinton adaption – after Tex and, of course, The Outsiders) although it took me quite some time to actually appreciate his contribution here. You see, he’s just too good at being naive, slow-witted and gung-ho. Indeed I always felt like his performance in Wild Things was almost a parody of everything that he generally brought to any role he took. It would not be until 2005’s Crash that he really managed to shine before a wide audience. But here, in Rumble Fish, he should actually be commended for staying true to the character, even if it does not get him any points for likeability. Perhaps opposite someone with less presence than Rourke, Dillon would have had a better chance of shining, but he’s far from bad in the part – actually doing exactly what is required from him.
The supporting cast are almost all now famous. Diane Lane (who plays Martha Kent in 2013’s Man of Steel) puts in a superb turn – equal parts sexy teen siren and sultry femme fatale – as Rusty’s gorgeous girlfriend, who isn’t too impressed by his decisions in life; Coppola’s own nephew, Nicolas Cage (Face/Off, The Rock, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans), delivers a competent young performance as one of Rusty’s sneakier gang members; and Chris Penn (True Romance, Reservoir Dogs) plays one of the more loyal ones. Lawrence Fishburne (The Matrix, King of New York) makes an early appearance, just a few years after his teenage Apocalypse Now debut, and the director’s daughter Sofia Coppola makes her own film debut as Rusty James’s girlfriend’s kid sister (she would go on to be criticised for her last-minute casting in Godfather III before striking out as a competent director of her own, making Lost in Translation, although also making the pretentious Somewhere).
Singer-songwriter Tom Waits, a personal friend of Coppola’s (he appeared in The Outsiders and, later, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula), stands out in an extended cameo as the owner of the local bar, who mumbles to himself in the background of many of the scenes – often criticising the gangs for their bad language, but occasionally throwing in some really insightful bits of dialogue. His distinctive voice and presence permeates these scenes, and his words are often the ones that you are most likely to reflect on. Similarly the late Dennis Hopper (Blue Velvet) is on top scene-chewing Apocalypse Now-esque form as the alcoholic absentee father to Rusty James and The Motorcycle Boy, who offers up the strangest pearls of wisdom in his liquor-fuelled diatribes.
“Blind terror in a fight can easily pass for courage.”
Still, despite the welcome and often impressive support, it’s Rourke who really shines through the piece, transcending even Coppola’s extravagant flourishes to embody the legendary Motorcycle Boy and give us the strongest character with which to latch onto.
Of course critics would, at the time, largely fail to find anything to latch onto, citing the film as a pretentious art-house mess; its stylistic touches only serving to alienate the same audiences that were drawn to The Outsiders just a year earlier. That it has only grown in acclaim is a testament to the lyrical beauty of the piece; a pure example of poetry in motion, of the potential for a triumph in style over substance – something which normally carries only negative connotations but which was arguably only a positive element of this moody production.
One of Coppola’s own personal favourite movies, and possibly one of his most underrated and underappreciated gems, Rumble Fish exists on a plane that is almost impossible to fully comprehend, but thankfully it is still capable of being truly admired and thoroughly enjoyed. Revel in the atmosphere and the mood, the raw performances and stylish cinematography; allow yourself to be driven by the infectious percussive beat, overwhelmed by the thoughtful, intoxicating dialogue, and swept away by the tragic, reflective drama. It likely has far more to offer than anybody will ever give credit to. Highly recommended.
“How can you tell if someone is crazy?”
“Can’t always... depends on how many think he’s crazy.”
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