Thursday 12 January 2023

Rumble Fish (1983)

Director: Francis Coppola
Writers: S. E. Hinton and Francis Coppola, from the novel by S. E. Hinton
Stars: Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Vincent Spano, Diane Lane, Diana Scarwid, Nicolas Cage and Dennis Hopper

Index: The First Thirty.

Before Valley Girl, Nicolas Cage appeared in Rumble Fish, the first of three eighties films for him that were directed by his uncle, Francis Ford Coppola. He would later make Deadfall for his elder brother, Christopher Coppola; their father, August Coppola, is Francis’s brother.

Francis Ford Coppola was a huge bankable name in 1983. He’d made some of the biggest and most important movies of the seventies, such as the first two Godfather films, Apocalypse Now—from which I got the name Apocalypse Later—and The Conversation. Arguably, that’s the only reason he was able to get this movie made, because it’s what he called “an art film for teenagers”. And he wouldn’t find it quite so easy to make something like it again.

It felt like a throwback to me, an homage to the rebel movies of the fifties but not to the rebels themselves. And that’s jarring, because the visuals in this movie, which are stunning, hearken back to the coolness of Brando and Dean and even, a little later, McQueen, but its message is that rebellion for the sake of it has become almost conservative.

When Brando’s character in The Wild One was asked what he was rebelling against, he famously answered, “Whaddya got?” If we ask Rusty James the same question here, he might say, “Because that’s what we’ve always done.” It’s his brother who might have a good answer but he’s keeping quiet. He’s the Motorcycle Boy, cool but educated, knowing and possibly half a dozen eggs short of a basket.

He’s also Mickey Rourke, in many ways the MacGuffin of the movie, because everyone is a fan of the Motorcycle Boy, the legend who got the gangs to observe a truce, but he doesn’t want the job any more. He sees the life that he’s lived as over and so he floats around in a vague attempt to persuade his idiot brother to wake up.

Rusty James is the lead character, which is enough to make Matt Dillon the star, but he’s just a follower, not that he knows it. He thinks he’s going to take over from the Motorcycle Boy as the badass in town and he knows it’s a given because nobody—except his girlfriend’s kid sister—calls him by one name. He’s Rusty James with both names, and that makes him important in his own mind. Just nobody else’s. There are a few things you can’t miss.

One is that the movie, made for teenagers in 1983, is in black and white. Well, except the Siamese fighting fish of the title, seen in vivid colour in the window of the local pet store, so highlighting how crucial they are to the movie as a metaphor for these disaffected youths.

That’s because Motorcycle Boy, who’s only twenty-one, is colourblind and partially deaf. He sees everything like on a black and white TV with the sound down low. And so we do as well, underlining how there’s meaning here if we care enough to dig for it.

Another thing we can’t miss is the fact that everybody here is somebody we recognise. It’s an insanely deep cast, one that just keeps on relentlessly giving. This is a deep cut for what seems like everyone.

For instance, the first major scene is when Midget arrives at Benny’s Billiards to call out Rusty James on behalf of Biff Wilcox. Midget is Laurence Fishburne, so young at this point that he’s still Larry Fishburne and I failed to recognise him. Rusty James’s sidekick Smokey is a loose Nicolas Cage. His dorky friend Steve is Vincent Spano. Their chunkier buddy BJ is Chris Penn. Rusty James’s girl is Diane Lane. That’s Tom Waits behind the bar, in a role that he could do in his sleep but still makes special. That’s a heck of a lot of future award winners in one scene.

And it doesn’t stop there. Rourke shows up at the fight, his grand return to town. William Smith is the ominous beat cop they all have to pass to leave. Their father is Dennis Hopper in a dream of a supporting role. In a blink and you’ll miss it part, there’s even S. E. Hinton as a prostitute, the author of the source books for this and Coppola’s previous film, The Outsiders.

Ironically, though, because every one of the actors mentioned does a great job here, I’d see the highest praise as being due to members of the crew: Coppola the director who held it all together; Stephen H. Burum as the director of photography who shot the film; and Stewart Copeland, the drummer with the Police, who composed the unusual score. All three shine in a succession of highlights.

The experimental scenes! The shadowplay! The crowd scenes! The perspective shots! The contrast! The use of extras! The rhythmic and bizarre score that makes everything urgent, as if it’s built from ticking clocks and cicadas! Oh, and the ambitious long one shot take close to the end of the picture!

There’s so much to praise here without ever talking about that insanely deep cast, because we can talk about German expressionism and the French new wave and... nah, I need to talk about Nicolas Cage because he’s why I’m here.

As Smokey, he initially seems to be a minor character because, if Rusty James is the lead, then his sidekick is Steve, his oldest friend. It’s only as we grasp the perspectives of the film that we realise that Smokey is the star of the other story in town, the one we’re not seeing because we’re watching Rusty James through Motorcycle Boy’s disappointed eyes.

While Rusty James thinks of himself as the gang leader and blissfully trusts that everyone else will acknowledge that, his deputy Smokey is actually running the gang in his stead, what gang there is at this point in time. That means we don’t see him much but, when we do see him, it’s at a crucial moment, especially late in the film in Smokey’s biggest scene.

He’s with Patty now, because she’s moved on from Rusty James. The guys go out front to talk and Smokey gives him a serious wake up call, not with fists but with purest honesty, as Rusty James hasn’t noticed that the entire film is trying to hammer this point home to him. The gang era is gone. You aren’t your brother. Nobody is ever going to follow you anywhere.

It’s one of the most important scenes in the film and star Matt Dillon is on the receiving end. It falls to Nicolas Cage to dish it out and he’s in fine form, enough to update that talent reel he started with The Best of Times.

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