Eureka Entertainment // 1983 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // August 13th, 2012
"What is this? Another glorious battle for the kingdom?"
With filming only have just wrapped on his adaptation of author S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, director Francis Ford Coppola began work on an adaptation of another of the author's novels, Rumble Fish.
Due to concerns with the way The Outsiders was taking shape, Warner Bros. declined the option to distribute Rumble Fish, leading to Coppola being unable to fund his picture. Despite this, Coppola shot a version of the screenplay he had developed with Hinton on video, using blue screen technology to place the actors in the intended locations. With Universal eventually coming on board, Coppola was given license to deliver one of the most daring, yet sadly forgotten, pictures of his career.
Rusty James (Matt Dillon, Crash), a common street thug, aspires to live up to the reputation of his absent older brother, The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke, Sin City), whose shadow he lives in. Beyond that, Rusty's life has no direction. From his relationship with his girlfriend (Diane Lane, Streets of Fire) to his schooling, Rusty lacks the ability to commit to anything.
However, when rival gang leader Biff Wilcox (Glenn Withrow) makes a threat against Rusty's life, which leads to the return of Motorcycle Boy, he is given one final shot at salvation.
Rumble Fish is a beautiful-looking film, a fact that its most ardent critics frequently use as a stick to beat it with. The argument goes that Rumble Fish is all style and no substance, yet to follow this line of thinking would be to completely miss the clear themes that run through the film and ignore the remarkable cast.
One of the big themes running through Rumble Fish is the passing of time, and how it is uncontrollable. Coppola isn't subtle in conveying this, and frequently utilizes time-lapse photography, while a number of scenes have characters studying clocks or keeping an eye on their watches. In fact, the film opens with Laurence Fishburneâ€™s Midget informing Rusty that a rival gang member has put a threat on his life, immediately setting off a sense of time running out for the character. While Rusty James seems oblivious to this, the Motorcycle Boy is all too aware that the clock is ticking, which in turn leads to his more reflective tone.
Going hand-in-hand with this is the sense of hopelessness that surrounds Rusty James and his brother. Neither has any hope of escaping their dead-end lives, and sees nothing but scraping out a meager, most likely violent, existence in their hometown. Rusty James' relationship with his girlfriend, who comes from a more affluent part of town, is doomed from the off; due to both her ability to climb the social ladder and Rusty's inability to stay faithful to her. Rusty's only ambition is to earn himself a reputation that would put him in standing with that of his brother. He, like many of the characters that inhabit the film, fails to look outside the confines of his own existence to see the bigger picture, and has no understanding of the possibilities life holds. For Rusty James, school is not a place to gain knowledge; it is a social gathering that he attends simply because his friends are there. This hopelessness is palpable, and lends the film a somber tone.
The setting of Rumble Fish is vague to say the least. I initially assumed the film to be a contemporary piece, set in 1980s America. Yet as the film unfolded it became clear that Coppola was heavily influenced by 1950s Americana. This clash of the decades lends the film a timeless feel that refuses to be pigeonholed to one particular era.
One of Coppola's most daring decisions was to task Michael Smuin of the San Francisco Ballet with choreographing the big fight scene that draws the opening act to a close. The buildup to the fight, and the rumble itself, are highly reminiscent of West Side Story -- minus the singing, of course. Dillon and Withrow both commit themselves to the director's vision, and in doing so deliver a unique fight scene that is as graceful as it is undoubtedly brutal. The scene also acts as the introduction to the film's most intriguing character, Mickey Rourke's The Motorcycle Boy. Rourke's almost angelic face and hushed tones are in sharp contrast to his character's fiery reputation. Described as a "pied piper," Motorcycle Boy is looked upon in awe by Rusty and his friends following his past exploits. Yet, following an apparently lengthy hiatus, The Motorcycle Boy has returned a very different man. Clearly in no mood to lead these young men like he did before, he bluntly puts it to Rusty that, "If you're going to lead people, you have to have somewhere to go."
The cast is truly first-rate. Rourke is note perfect, as is Dillon who brings a real conviction to the angry, confused Rusty James. Their support cast could hardly have been better. Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider) plays the brother's drunken father, whose references to Greek mythology hint at a learned man who has fallen apart following the mysterious disappearance of his wife. A very young Diane Lane brings feistiness to schoolgirl Patty, while Chris Penn (Best of the Best 2), Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix), and Nicholas Cage (National Treasure) deliver memorable turns in small roles.
Shot in high contrast black-and-white, with only the briefest snatches of color reserved for a particular purpose, Rumble Fish (Blu-ray) (Region B) looks magnificent. The 1.85:1/1080p transfer is pin-sharp, and packs a surprising amount of depth. Blacks levels are rock solid, and detail levels very good. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track -- a polished version of the original stereo track -- is crystal clear, as is the optional 5.1 upgrade.
Though limited in number, the quality of the extras included on Rumble Fish (Blu-ray) (Region B) is excellent -- though they are carried across from the previous DVD version. Director Francis Ford Coppola provides an excellent audio commentary, which provides a wealth of information on the film. This is complemented by a short (11 minute) making-of featurette. Containing interviews with members of the cast and crew, as well as author S.E. Hinton, the highlight is undoubtedly the footage we get to see of Coppola's pre-production version of Rumble Fish. The other featurette focuses on Stewart Copeland's (The Police) memorable score for the film. The final retail copy will also include a booklet featuring rare archival imagery.
Much more than just a stylish interlude in Coppola's directorial career, Rumble Fish tells a timeless parable of misspent youth that shines thanks to its young cast.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Not Rated