Monday 4 November 2013

Movie Review: Rumble Fish (1983)

A stylistic exploration of lost youth, Rumble Fish searches for a reason to exist but finds none. The central characters are only mildly interesting, and there is hardly anything going on to create a narrative hook.

Rusty James (Matt Dillon) is a tough kid and the leader of his pack, consisting of Steve (Vincent Spano) and Smokey (Nicolas Cage), among others. Rusty harkens back to mythical old days when gangs ruled the streets, and idolizes his absentee brother Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), a former gang leader. With Rusty trying to hang on to Patty (Diane Lane) as a girlfriend of sorts despite her disapproval of his rough life, Motorcycle Boy suddenly returns to town after a trip to California.

In a rumble with an opposing gang, Rusty is injured, while police officer Patterson (William Smith) keeps a suspicious eye on Motorcycle Boy, disapproving of his return and believing him to be nothing but trouble. Both Rusty and Motorcycle Boy have to put up with a drunk of a father (Dennis Hopper), who wastes his life downing bottles of alcohol. After a few more violent skirmishes, the two brothers meet at a pet store selling colourful fish, and decide to cause some mischief in the name of freedom.

Francis Ford Coppola collaborated with author S.E. Hinton to create a screenplay out of Hinton's book, and Coppola filmed Rumble Fish immediately after the moderately more successful The Outsiders. Filmed by Coppola in crisp black and white with plenty of smoke, theatrical sets and flashy camera angles, Rumble Fish tries to be about something meaningful, but the artistry of presentation fails to mask the lack of substance.

Rusty James, Motorcycle Boy, and the rest of their cohorts have nothing new to offer. They are supposed to elicit sympathy just because they are who they are, their father is a drunk and their mother has fled. But the film stalls within a few minutes, trying too hard to make heroes out of outcasts, never giving the characters the chance to earn their place as people worth caring about. They rumble, they argue, they chase girls, and they lament their miserable parents. It's all too trite, territory that has been covered too many time in too many films dating back 30 years and more.

Coppola's directing calls attention to itself at every turn, a reasonably welcome distraction from the non-event of the plot, but creating an all too obvious case of all packaging and no package. A few small fish in an aquarium contribute the only splash of colour, and the freedom of the fish is supposed to represent Something Important. By the time Rusty James and Motorcycle Boy decide to heroically Free the Fish, any climactic cause is acceptable just to bring proceedings to a close.

The young ensemble cast of Dillon, Lane, Cage and Spano are pure intensity but no real humanity. Rourke smirks through the movie in one of his exceedingly annoying I'm-bored-so-I'll-pretend-to-smile-as-if-I'm-hiding-something-but-really-I'm-not performances. Hopper hides behind a bottle and Williams hides behind his shades, two veteran performers sticking closely to stereotypes.

Rumble Fish may look tasty, but it emits the unmistakable odour of a spoilt catch.

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