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Probably the last great Coppola film... a modern classic.
on 9 January 2008
Rumble Fish is a strange and hypnotic film that follows the character of Rusty James, a young punk growing up in a small sleepy mid-western town, shackled to a drunken father, a group of fickle friends, and continually in the shadow of his enigmatic brother, The Motorcycle Boy. The film, although seemingly set in the present day, uses the style of the old 50's melodramas to great effect, referencing the likes of Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One with it's stark, stylised black and white photography and it's bizarre compositions, whilst director Francis Ford Coppola uses a number of audio and visual effects familiar from his previous films, most notably, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart, to give the film a strange, hypnotic and dreamlike quality that lingers throughout the film.
As with many of the other films that it references, the plot to Rumble Fish is quite simple, with Coppola building the film around the enigma of The Motorcycle Boy and around the ideas of family ties, small-town ennui and personal redemption. Although Rusty James is the film's central character, he is constantly overshadowed by his mysterious brother, who seems almost shell-shocked by whatever it is that he's witnessed during his years away from home. He is certainly one of the most interesting characters from any of Coppola's greater films, and is perfectly brought to life by Mickey Rourke in what is possibly his greatest performance ever (although, I think he's equally spellbinding in both Angel Heart and Year of the Dragon). Here, Rourke possess all the cool and feckless attitude of Brando and James Dean, but he also brings that damaged, somewhat alienated quality to role, which suggests so much about the characters and his past and also, about the possible future of the younger Rusty James.
The cinematic style of the film is exquisite, with Coppola invoking a real period feel through the use of photography and production design, which jars beautifully against Stuart Copeland's very 80's, very anachronistic score. The percussion suits the staccato editing style that Coppola uses in the first few scenes (which highlights the escalating boredom of the characters), whilst the use of time-lapse photography (inspired by the film Koyaanisqatsi, which Coppola produced) works perfectly in demonstrating the idea of time frittering away. The black and white photography works well, conveying the literally "black and white" view point of Rusty James, whilst the titular rumble fish (glimpsed through the window of the local pet store) are the only objects in the film that appear in colour (a nice metaphor). The sound design is purposely muddy, attempting to convey along with the images that skewed, slightly alienated view of the world that these characters possess, whilst Copeland's music also merges with the sound design to heighten the overall atmosphere of the film.
The acting is strong throughout, with Rourke coming across as the real standout, although the performance of Matt Dillon as the hotheaded and arrogant Rusty James is also impressive. The supporting cast features a wide array of cult performers and (then) unknowns that have now gone on to greater things, notably Dennis Hopper, Diane Lane, William Smith, Laurence Fishburne, Nicolas Cage, Tom Waits and Chris Penn. After Rumble Fish, Coppola would produce the problematic Cotton Club (possibly underrated), before cementing his reputation as something of a has-been with the third Godfather film, and throwaways like Jack, Peggy Sue Got Married and The Rainmaker. Because of this, Rumble Fish stands as something of a relic to the time when he was one of the most interesting American directors of his era... and is probably a film to rival the greatness of The Godfather, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now.