“The Motorcycle Boy Reigns.”
With a few shots of a blasted urban hellscape and that graffiti on a few different walls and signs, the director immediately drops you into the world of “Rumble Fish.”
There’s nothing real about it. The dialogue in the first scene (between Lawrence Fishburne, Vincent Spano, Tom Waits, Nic Cage, Chris Penn, and Matt Dillon) is stylized and heightened and musical, supported by the percussive bells of Stewart Copeland’s impressive score. A challenge has been thrown down. A threat has been made. Rusty James has got to go meet someone in a vacant lot that night at midnight, and his friends are going with him. And the mere mention of The Motorcycle Boy, the long-absent older brother of Rusty James, sets him off. Right away, you’re awash in the way “Rumble Fish” plans to tell you its story, and either you’re in or you’re out, but “Rumble Fish” doesn’t care. It’s doing its own thing. And that is what makes it one of my favorite of Francis Ford Coppola’s films.
“The Outsiders” was a big deal when it was released in March of 1983, and it was treated like a big event. The book had a reputation that earned the movie a lot of piggy-back attention. It had to live up to the love that teenagers had developed for that book by that point. And I think it did, absolutely. I love “The Outsiders.” I think it’s gorgeous and lush and it treats Hinton’s novel like an American epic, like an essential teen story. He cast that movie with a who’s-who of young hot talent at the time, and when you look at the cast now, his batting average is awe-inspiring. C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, and Diane Lane are all main characters in this sprawling character piece, and they were all still early on in their careers.
And as impressive as “The Outsiders” is, with its big-movie attitude, I find myself more drawn to Coppola’s “Rumble Fish,” which was also released in 1983, but closer to the end of the year. “Rumble Fish” basically flew in under the radar, Coppola’s “quick and dirty” shoot of another Hinton book. It is the experimental film in response to the big studio film. It features some of the same cast, and then a whole lot of other amazing folks as well, and it may well be the prettiest thing that Stephen H. Burum ever shot as a cinematographer. Like “Grease,” which I wrote about earlier today, “Rumble Fish” fetishizes a particular moment in ’50s/’60s iconography, but in very different ways. “Grease” was all about the sexual frustration of the era and the roles that teens were given to play, while “Rumble Fish” is more about the notion of the teen growing up with violent and broken role models who is starting to become violent and broken himself. It’s not a new story, but none of Hinton’s books were popular or widely read because they were fiercely original. They caught fire because there was an authentic voice to them, and I like that no matter how theatrical this version of the ’50s is, there’s also a whole lot of stuff in it that feels observational and completely honest. Hinton and Coppola co-wrote the script, and one of the pleasures of re-watching the film for the first time in a while was seeing Dennis Hopper’s work as the alcoholic father of Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke. Talk about passing the torch. You can see how much Mickey Rourke is trying to absorb every bit of magnetism that Hopper displays. Hopper’s not in a lot of the film, but he’s got some great raw moments, and Coppola loves getting in close to those ruined rummy eyes of Hopper’s.
It’s a very rich visual experience. It’s black-and-white but with a couple of tiny considered color flourishes. There are some goldfish, some koi, who are rendered in vivid hyper-color, and there’s one shot near the end of the film that uses color for a brief emotional grace note. It’s one of those touches that really reminds me of what an old-fashioned movie nerd Coppola is. He’s the same kind of film fan as Scorsese, and he is unafraid of the big theatrical gesture. This movie is much more archetypical than “The Outsiders,” and the actors all seem tuned in to the exact same wild energy. Diane Lane made a powerful impression in this one when I saw the film in 1983. Keep in mind, I was 13, so she was “an older woman” as far as I was concerned. Coppola shoots her much more salaciously here than in “The Outsiders,” where she was the oh-so-pure Cherry Valance. Coppola must have loved the energy between her and Matt Dillon, because there’s so much more of them together here, and they’ve got exactly the same spark, exactly the same energy.
I like that Rusty James (Matt Dillon) is the main character in this film. He’s a genuinely bad kid in a lot of ways. He has no moral code. He thinks he does, but he’s got it all screwed up in his head. He’s the kind of guy who’s willing to walk out on his friends and leave them at the scene of a fight if he has a chance of making time with Patty (Lane), and he doesn’t think before he leads people into harm’s way. He idolizes his older brother, who is a veteran of the gang wars of a few years earlier, the day sof legend that Rusty James and his friends all envy and romanticize. His older brother’s been gone for a while, avoiding some cops who were desperate to pick him up, but he shows up again, and the introduction of the Motorcycle Boy in the film is just perfect. Seeing it in 1983, though, I had a totally different reaction than the one I had this time, even though I loved the technique of it both times. In 1983, I looked at it and thought, “Wow, that guy is the coolest ’50s hood of all time. He’s Fonzie cubed.” This weekend, I looked at it and thought, “OH MY GOD THAT IS RIGHT MICKEY ROURKE USED TO BE BEAUTIFUL.” And such a good actor. So subtle. So alive. You can see Rourke thinking and living in every shot, and he’s so grounded, so natural, that you just accept him as The Motorcycle Boy. He’s this fully-formed icon, exactly what Hinton wrote. And he gives a great performance in the film, a guy who knows his day has passed and who wants more for his brother.
When I told Will Goss we were going to be doing this film (and some of the others coming up in the next few entries in this series), he asked me if I really think of this as an essential film. Absolutely. I think Coppola is an essential filmmaker, and if you’re going to really understand and respect his art, you have to look at the films he made when he was playing around, when he was experimenting. Those are the films where I think Coppola lays himself most bare. Yes, “The Godfather Part II” is one of the great films of all time, but for that year, “The Conversation” is the movie that I rewatch more often. And as much as I love “The Outsiders,” I think you see just how florid and overheated and beautiful the world is through the filter of Francis Ford Coppola in the bruised monochrome beauty of “Rumble Fish.”
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