Combustible Celluloid
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With: Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane, Dennis Hopper, Nicolas Cage, Vincent Spano, Christopher Penn, Tom Waits, Laurence Fishburne, Sofia Coppola, Diana Scarwid, William Smith, Michael Higgins, Glenn Withrow, Tracey Walter
Written by: S.E. Hinton, Francis Ford Coppola, based on a novel by S.E. Hinton
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 94
Date: 10/21/1983

Rumble Fish (1983)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Acute Perception

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Rumble Fish showed Francis Ford Coppola well past the period of the 1970s, when he had achieved godlike status, trying to stay artistically relevant, but also struggling with finances, new technologies, and an ever-changing industry. But even if it isn't so effortless or obvious, I think it's a great film.

Like Coppola's previous film, the far more conventional The Outsiders, it's based on a novel by S.E. Hinton, and it focuses on a brotherly relationship, something Coppola knows a little bit about.

Matt Dillon plays Rusty James, a young urban thug; the movie is shot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, even if the name of the city is never mentioned. He wants to be a great gang leader like his older brother, the mysterious "Motorcycle Boy" (Mickey Rourke), who has disappeared and been gone for some time. On the night of a rumble, Motorcycle Boy turns up again and takes care of a wounded Rusty James.

Over the next couple of days, Rusty James tries to make time with the pretty Patty (Diane Lane), goes out for a night on the town with his brother and his best-friend-since-Kindergarten, the nerdy, bookish Steve (Vincent Spano), and find that things can change rather quickly when you're looking the other way. During the climax, an increasingly dreamy Motorcycle Boy breaks into a pet shop with the goal of freeing the "rumble fish."

While the movie could have taken the point of view of Rusty James and gone with a gritty, realistic visual scheme, Coppola goes the opposite, focusing on the Motorcycle Boy, who is color-blind and partly deaf, giving the movie an amazing, black-and-white design, with extremely severe angles, diagonal lines, and vivid close-ups. Fans have pointed out that nearly every shot features a clock of some kind; one shot places a giant clock with no hands right in the center of the frame. Moreover, the fish of the title are shown in bright colors.

Then there's the music score by Stewart Copeland, the drummer for the rock band The Police; it's all performed on percussive instruments, and often sounds like clocks ticking. It gives the movie a most unusual feel and adds to its dreamy, doomed feel. (The movie received no Oscar nominations and only one Golden Globe nomination, for this score.)

Underneath all this high style is a powerful story of worship, how projecting values onto a friend or a family member can provide a measure of hope, but also unrealistic expectations. When all this is stripped away, it almost seems as if nothing's left. Better to simply make as many real connections as one can, while it all lasts. After all, before you know it, you only have 35 summers left...

In 2017, the Criterion Collection released one of those Blu-rays that one might use to show off how beautiful your home system looks. Stephen H. Burum's deep-focused, 1:1.85 black-and-white cinematography and Stewart Copeland's tinkling, banging, thumping score translate magnificently to this format. It doesn't get much better.

There are two audio tracks (a 2.0 and a 5.1) as well as a Coppola commentary track (from 2005). There are brand-new interviews with most of the principal players involved, including Coppola, S.E. Hinton, the actors, Burum, designer Dean Tavoularis and more. We get archival interviews, a whole bunch of behind-the-scenes featurettes, trailers, a music video, deleted scenes, and a liner notes essay by the excellent film critic Glenn Kenny.

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