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Case Number 07737

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Rumble Fish: Special Edition

Universal // 1983 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // October 10th, 2005

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All Rise...

Here's a topic for you: Judge Brett Cullum says this film is about neither rumbles nor fish. Discuss.

Editor's Note

Our review of Rumble Fish (Blu-ray) (Region B), published August 13th, 2012, is also available.

The Charge

Father: No, your mother…is not crazy. And neither, contrary to popular belief, is your brother crazy. He's merely miscast in a play. He was born in the wrong era, on the wrong side of the river…With the ability to be able to do anything that he wants to do and…findin' nothin' that he wants to do. I mean nothing.

Opening Statement

People either love Rumble Fish for being an arty exercise in over-stylization, or they hate it for the same reason. The movie was originally released on DVD back in 1998 in an overpriced bare-bones edition with a stereo audio track. Seven years later, Universal has decided to expand the features, clean up the transfer, and amp up the sound. If you're into movies that want to be art, here's one you don't want to pass up.

Facts of the Case

Rusty James (Matt Dillon, Wild Things) is a troubled teen who lives in the shadow of his older brother, "the Motorcycle Boy" (Mickey Rourke, Sin City). He wants to be smart, tough, and cool like his sibling. Trouble is he seems to only have the tough part down. Dillon's character doesn't excel at being a leader like his brother, he's only good at getting people into trouble and trying to kick and punch his way out of it. Everyone around him has given up on Rusty James, and he's going to destroy anybody around him, including himself. When his brother returns, Rusty has to come to grips with who they both really are.

Even though the story seems to center on Rusty James, the world is actually seen through the eyes of Mickey Rourke's "Motorcycle Boy." It is established he is color blind as well as slightly deaf. Someone asks him what that's like, and he responds, "Like watching a black-and-white TV with the sound turned down." He mourns he can't remember colors. Rumble Fish adopts this view visually.

The Evidence

The film was Francis Ford Coppola's second adaptation of an S.E. Hinton novel; the first being The Outsiders. He worked closely with Hinton, who helped him write the script and was on set the entire time. One wonders if the author maybe had a thing for the Italian director, because she certainly didn't let other people touch her work often. Coppola created a hallucinatory black and white film with strategic splashes of color that nobody seemed to like in 1983. During its premiere at The New York Film Festival it was booed, and critics were split as to whether it was visually daring or stupidly excessive. Coppola was either a hack or an auteur, and Rumble Fish created two distinct camps quickly.

It's a movie most people overlook today when discussing Francis Ford Coppola, but it reveals a lot about the director. The narrative is obscured by Coppola's obsession with creating visual metaphors for time, loyalty, violence, and family. Coppola has these themes running through most of his work, probably best expressed in his Godfather trilogy. Physically, the setting of Rumble Fish is a mythical American netherworld, where all decades run together. It appears to be an industrial town where the '50s are still happening in the '80s. Time-lapse cumulus clouds roll by above the cast, and the entire story is shot in luminous black and white with only the occasional color accent of blue and red (most strikingly with the Japanese fighting fish in a pet store). Coppola achieved a severe gunmetal gray look by backlighting most of his actors; he wanted to create shadows that were prominent everywhere you looked. The darkness feels tactile throughout the movie. Some of the shadows are, in fact, painted on to the sets, in a move that makes the film look like the style used in German Expressionist cinema. Coppola creates sharp, looming angles as well, and uncomfortably close shots of faces and props often distort what they are photographing. Smoke and fog constantly roll over the sets in great abundance. The whole landscape of the film is often shrouded, as if clouds have invaded the land. It's an odd looking movie that embraces the idea of art for art's sake.

The cast is an amazing collection of great actors doing exceptional work. A lot of them also appeared in The Outsiders, since the production started two weeks after that project wrapped, but there were quite a few new faces as well. Dillon was cast as Rusty James only after Tom Cruise (Collateral) declined the lead role in order to film Risky Business (ironically, another dark take on teenagers). Matt Dillon had read the book years before, and stated in interviews it was one of his favorites. Diane Lane (Under the Tuscan Sun), Diana Scarwid (Mommie Dearest), Dennis Hopper (Blue Velvet), Nicolas Cage (Adaptation), Vincent Spano (The Tie That Binds), Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix), and Tom Waits (Coffee and Cigarettes) all appear in various roles. They all handle the stylized dialogue with grace and skill. Coppola definitely had an advantage with the caliber of actors who were willing to work on the project. Dillon and Rourke may get the most screen time, but everyone in the film has a beat or a moment where they shine. Sofia Coppola (director of Lost in Translation) appears as an awkward preteen, and S.E. Hinton even gets a cameo as a hooker on the strip.

Rumble Fish was ahead of its time; seen today, it feels like an older brother to Robert Rodriguez's Sin City. The black-and-white-with-splashes-of-color palette is an obvious similarity, but the film has the same violent, sexy attitude and noir dialogue. Of course Rodriguez and Frank Miller took their story further with the violence, but Coppola has several fight scenes in Rumble Fish that are visceral and wildly over the top. It's ironic to see Mickey Rourke in the film as a tough guy who talks in riddles and poems, when he would find himself in an even more exaggerated version of that same role for Rodriguez's film. Rumble Fish is proof Mickey had an unfair advantage over the cast of Sin City, because he had already made a film with the same sensibility.

The film has one of the best musical scores ever produced. Stewart Copeland of The Police created a wall-to-wall musical tone poem built around percussion for the soundtrack. He won a Golden Globe for his efforts, and it remains stunning to this day. Rumble Fish was an important film that married the rising sensibility of MTV with high art. The full surround track created for this special edition of the film showcases the score beautifully. Also included in the special features is the seminal music video for "Don't Box Me In," which Copeland composed with lead vocals by Stan Ridgeway (the singer for Wall of Voodoo).

Universal has gone all out for their special edition of the film. The transfer looks great. There is a little bit of shimmering, but the black levels are spot on and it looks luminous. Extras include an insightful commentary with Coppola revealing a lot about the production. It's a track that provides invaluable insight into Coppola, and is a prime example of what makes a great commentary. The "making of" segment includes vintage footage from the production as well as current interviews with the cast and crew. The look at the score goes to the same depths, and Stewart Copeland seems happy to explore one of his most honored projects. The deleted scenes are straight off a video camera and look rough, but expand on some key moments. All in all, it's a perfect package for film buffs who want to know everything about Rumble Fish.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

The heavy-handed style of Rumble Fish will divide viewers, and some are not going to like it. The film is all artifice, and little of it feels remotely real. It's a dream movie, and not intended to capture a concrete world. The script spits out endless pontifications on time, loyalty, family, and violence. The characters talk like dime store philosophers after a three drink buzz. Coppola stated it was "an art film for the kids," and certainly hip teenagers in the '80s seemed to embrace it the most. It's not a movie about action, but rather stagnation. It's a Greek tragedy masquerading as a drama about juvenile delinquents. If that doesn't sound appealing it's not the movie for you.

Closing Statement

Rumble Fish frightened studio executives, who began to realize how far Coppola had strayed from Hollywood conventions. He had made an existentialist movie for teenagers, and nobody seemed to understand it. Time is kinder on the material, and now the movie seems more resonant and just as fresh. Rumble Fish is a movie that blossoms on DVD. It may have had a rocky road in its initial theatrical release, but the DVD format allows viewers to explore its unique world. You notice more, you grow to love the symbols, and all the extras help deepen your appreciation for one of Coppola's unsung masterpieces. The film is a beautiful piece of work that deserves all the extra attention heaped on it by Universal. It's one you should definitely check out, and is a worthy investment for collectors. Coppola fans will find it a must-own.

The Verdict

Guilty of being an exercise in pure gorgeous style, Rumble Fish stands as one of Coppola's most divisive works. If you like artifice, and a so-hip-it-hurts approach, it's a rich, rewarding journey. Universal has assembled a well-produced look at an auteur's vision of what teenagers are—sexy, violent time bombs waiting for an escape. Ironically, that could also apply to the filmmaker himself.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 94
Audio: 94
Extras: 95
Acting: 94
Story: 93
Judgment: 94

Perp Profile

Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Deleted Scenes
• "Making of" Featurette
• Commentary with Director Francis Ford Coppola
• Music Video for "Don't Box Me In"
• Feature on Composing the Score with Stewart Copeland

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