Criterion Prediction #65: Rumble Fish, by Alexander Miller
Title: Rumble Fish
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Matt Dillon, Dennis Hopper, Diane Lane, Vincent Spano, Nicolas Cage, Diana Scarwid
Synopsis: Rusty James (Dillon) and his buddies knock around their neighborhood in Tulsa Oklahoma, shooting pool and getting into fights. Rusty and his tough guy friends know their way around the reputation of his older brother, known only as Motorcycle Boy (Rourke). Rusty looks up to his older brother; however Motorcycle Boy seems to be more of a soft-spoken philosopher than a brawler.
Critique: Coppola can make a sweeping gangster trilogy, capture our imaginations with a bombastic iteration of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and recreate Vietnam in a baroque literary adaptation turned fever dream but the wunderkind extraordinaire of the New Hollywood’s “master class” is at his best when he casts grandiosity aside and commits himself to unrestrained artistry.
Sometimes I imagine an alternate universe where George Lucas’ THX 1138 (American Zoetrope’s flagship film) was a hit and Coppola and Lucas dedicated themselves to thought-provoking artistic filmmaking. Not to denigrate anything by the director in the “proper” universe but Rumble Fish feels like the type of film we’d see more of if Coppola’s career took a different turn.
If you take the best of what Coppola can do, the hard-nosed masculine/familial traditions juxtaposed with more existential explorations of duty, honor, and the folly of machismo against inner turmoil, you get Rumble Fish. If The Outsiders is Coppola’s baby, Rumble Fish is the runaway stepchild.
There’s no doubt that this kaleidoscope of visuals will grab your attention. The story is a tad thin but this is a film about characters and style. As if Coppola’s pent up restraint that made The Conversation and The Rain People so fascinating explodes on the screen with Rumble Fish.
The cast is dynamic and its big names are at their best. Prior to becoming a joke about himself, Nicolas Cage is an exciting energetic force, Matt Dillon (a familiar face) is an evolved form of Dallas; some of his edges are filed down but he’s still got a wild streak. Chris Penn, and Lawrence (or Larry back in 1983) Fishburne all play wonderfully, along with the criminally undervalued Vincent Spano. I can’t imagine anyone else playing Dennis Hopper’s ragtag old school wino (credited as Father) Father; Hopper was all over the map (literally) at this point, but when he’s good you see an excellent performance. Amid the dank masculinity, there’s some beauty to augment the beast, and a young Diane Lane lights up the screen, it’s no wonder she’d go onto to great things. At the center of these swarthy confections is Rourke, when he was the promising face that was part Brando, part Generation X’s answer to unfillable James Dean deficit, for all the ceremonious pomp going awry in Rumble Fish the first image that comes to mind is Motorcycle Boy poking at a fish tank.
Rumble Fish feels like a “love it or leave it” affair and those of us who love it won’t say it’s a perfect movie but it’s a relentlessly compelling one. When I go into a movie I always think, “show me something I haven’t seen before” and this spirited outing doesn’t look or sound like any other film before or after; I don’t know what a Musync device is but Stuart Copeland’s bouncy, erratic score adds to the fun.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: It would be nice to have a Criterion release of The Godfather trilogy, The Conversation, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which could theoretically happen given it was a Criterion Laserdisc) but Rumble Fish is at the perfect level of undervalued movie by a notable director that makes it a prime candidate. Maybe it’s cheating for me to be inspired by the Newsletter drawings, but this was on deck for a while. For those that are learning about Coppola, Rumble Fish doesn’t come up in conversation as much as it should. And that’s what’s great about The Criterion Collection: Their inventory is an off-campus film school and we’re long overdue for some Coppola in the collection.