Back in 1983, I was 18 and just out of high school. With an interest in pursuing a career in film making, I set out to dive head first into the world of film. I started watching movies a lot. I mean, I was going a couple of times a week to the theater, I was renting movies from our local video store, and I had decorated my room with film posters — mostly ripped from the pages of Rolling Stone. However, I wasn’t a newbie to film. I was aware of the giants in the industry and knew of the importance of Francis Ford Coppola. And when he released Rumble Fish in 1983, it had “this is important” written all over it — well, at least it did to me.
I remember being eager to see the movie, and thought I was watching something pretty deep when I went to a screening. It was filmed largely in black and white, had an introspective Mickey Rourke mumbling about this and that, Matt Dillon acting tough and stupid, Diane Lane having a tough time bringing life to her character (but looking great on screen), and Dennis Hopper doing a great job as the dad of Rourke and Dillon — who’s a total drunk.
The film was shot beautifully by Stephen Burum — who did a fantastic job photographing The Black Stallion and Apocalypse Now — and getting Stewart Copeland to score the film was a nice touch. The music he created was moody, quirky, but also reminiscent of the kind of music The Police crafted. Plus, you had a story by S.E. Hinton who authored The Outsiders ( the film version was also directed by Coppola). So, taken in total, there were a lot of elements going into the film that should have produced a hit.
Coppola’s artsy film had very little substance to it. The story is pretty simple: Rusty James (Dillon) is a brother of a gang leader known only as The Motorcycle Boy (Rourke) who left town after making a pact with other gangs that there would be no more fights (i.e., rumbles). Rusty James gets challenged to the fight by another gang leader, and they end up at the proverbial train tracks ready to duke it out — and, by engaging in the fight, breaking the truce. During the fight, The Motorcycle Boy returns to see Rusty James pummel his opponent into a stupor. However, during a conversation between the brothers, the rival gang member regains consciousness, picks up a shard of glass, and gashes Rusty in the side. This sets up the conflict in the movie that pits The Motorcycle Boy against a local cop (who sees him as an agent of disorder), The Motorcycle Boy against Rusty James (who wants to change Rusty into a peaceful guy), and the Motorcycle Boy against his junkie girlfriend (who wants love from him, but is tortured by his distance). Throughout the film, Rusty James wants to be like his brother. He wants to look like him, wants to be the head of the local gang like him, and would love it if he had the same smarts as him. There’s lots of talk about how The Motorcycle Boy is brilliant, is a prince in exile, is this, is that. But throughout it all, The Motorcycle Boy just kind of saunters from scene to scene trying to pull off a look that makes him look deep, but far too often he comes across as confused and a bit drunk. Add to that his whisper of a mumble in scene after scene, and one has to wonder what’s the point of this movie.
When I saw the film in 1983, I was an impressionable teenager who thought Coppola was saying something about…well, I didn’t know what. But it was something. After all, this was Coppola were talking about here. Flash forward to 2014, and I’m much more critical of these kind of films. That is to say, films that put style over substance. Rumble Fish is supposed to be a kind of meditation on time, violence, and trying to change human behavior. However, Rumble Fish fails to achieve any of this in a meaningful way. The film is a bore with lame to bathetic dialogue, poor character development, stilted dialogue and scenes the often fail to propel the action forward.
Time may have jade me from that impressionable teen who wanted to derive deep meaning from films with lofty aims, but whatever Coppola had to say with Rumble Fish seems to have been lost in the smoke that pervades many of the scenes in the film. One thing good that came out of the film, though. And that was the collaboration between Stewart Copeland and Stan Ridgway on “Don’t Box Me In.”