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RUMBLE FISH

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, July 14, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: Francis Ford Coppola made S.E. Hinton’s ‘The Outsiders’ a much bigger and more flamboyant movie than the material deserved, and then he immediately adapted another Hinton novel for this film, which is much smaller, very artsy and strangely abstract. But the boutique label Criterion Collection thought enough of it to give it an upgraded Blu-ray release last year. Here’s my Deseret News review, published on Nov. 5, 1983.

Francis Ford Coppola’s second filming of an S.E. Hinton novel (“The Outsiders” was released early this year and is already on videotape) is stylized, surrealistic, often baffling and ultimately displaces its story with visual gimmickry and pretentious symbolism. Yet there is something hypnotic about the style and the gimmickry, and yes, even the symbolism.

If this were an obscure European film, the Eastern critics would be falling all over themselves with praise. But it is from the director of “The Godfather,” so “Rumble Fish” is generally being brushed off as a grab-bag of cinematic tricks.

Despite the muddled storyline and the ridiculous extremes to which Coppola obviously takes this slight tale, it was impossible for me to shrug it all off. There’s a tone here, a tension and an over-all passion that keeps interest up, even when you don’t know what the heck is going on.

Basically, the film is about Rusty-James (Matt Dillon), a young troubled teenager with a hero-worship crush on his older brother, known only as The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). And the film takes Rusty-James through a series of seemingly unrelated incidents, tied together with stylized black and white photography, fast-paced rolling clouds and speeding city traffic, smoke and steam billowing out of every nook and cranny, and the face of a clock in nearly every scene.

Is the black pimp a figure of death or is the arrogant cop the death specter? Is Rusty-James actually dreaming all this, flashing on a brother who has long been dead, or is this a linear storyline that’s simply gussied up? What do all the clocks say about our time on earth — that it’s too short, that we misuse it, that we should be more aware of it? And what of the film’s only color images, the rumble fish (tiny Siamese fighting fish) — is the color there because the color-blind Motorcycle Boy identifies with them, or just to heavy-handedly emphasize the parallel?

     

               Nicolas Cage, Diane Lane, 'Rumble Fish'

And is Francis Coppola so hung up on style that he has forgotten how to give us substance?

Who knows? Who cares?

In “Rumble Fish” none of this really matters, as the visual expression of the subject matter is what Coppola obviously cares about, and to some extent it is enough.

Though some of the images — particularly a levitation scene that has Rusty-James leaving his body and being cheered on by his friends — seem merely silly, most of them are quite stimulating: After an injury, Rusty-James hallucinates that he is in school, and his girlfriend, clad in skimpy lingerie, flirts with him as she reclines atop lockers and bookshelves. Segue scenes show clouds racing across the sky as the sun rapidly sets, reflected on the side of a skyscraper. And perhaps the film’s most explosive scene, a carefully choreographed gang fight that coincides with flashes of light and low-level camera work.

     

There is nothing very clear here, and the debates about meaning could go on indefinitely, but “Rumble Fish” provides a feast for the eyes and ears.

The stunning black-and-white photography sets the tone for the troubled themes of the movie, and the sets quickly evoke late ’50s/early ’60s nostalgia. The music, by Police percussionist Stewart Copeland, is excellent, fitting perfectly into the film’s mood from beginning to end.

The acting is also quite good, by a group of youngsters who all seem destined for bigger things: Matt Dillon, the James Deanish brooding star of “The Outsiders,” “Tex” and “My Bodyguard”; Mickey Rourke, who scored well in “Diner” and “Body Heat,”; Vincent Spano, “The Sheik” in “Baby, It’s You”; Diane Lane, “The Outsiders,” “Six Pack”; Diana Scarwid, “Inside Moves,” “Strange Invaders”; and Nicolas Cage, “Valley Girl.”

Rated R for a brief orgy scene, as well as violence and a lot of profanity, “Rumble Fish” is clearly an adult film, though the theme is troubled youth. More than that, however, it requires a patient viewer — but the “look” of this film will more than reward that patience.