Francis Ford Coppola Rumble Fish (1983) is the latest cult favourite to be given the Blu-ray treatment thanks to the Masters of Cinema. It’s easy to see why the teen odyssey has been given precedence, with its artful monochrome cinematography and menagerie of American talent, including the likes of Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Nicolas Cage and Diane Lane. Yet it’s also a difficult film to truly grasp, with S. E. Hinton’s authorial voice as resonant as that of its auteur director. Dillon stars as gang leader Rusty James, a street-tough waif who one day manages to get his stomach sliced open in a knife-fight.
Saved in the nick-of-time by his much-idolised older brother “The Motorcycle Boy” (Rourke), the pair traipse the side-walks of Tulsa, Oklahoma, dreaming of a way out of their dead-end, fish bowl existence. All the while, James struggles to stay on the good side of his demanding young girlfriend Patty (an early appearance from Lane). Coppola’s second consecutive Hinton adaptation (following hot on the heels of 1983’s The Outsiders), Rumble Fish feels far more like a European arthouse effort than the latest from one of America’s most prominent directors. However, the links back to Coppola’s fantastic body of work are there for all the see, with the late Dennis Hopper even cameoing as the boys’ estranged, alcoholic father.
Visually, Rumble Fish is easily on a par with any of Coppola’s reputed classics, with DoP Stephen H. Burum’s leaning towards experimentation truly coming to the fore. Low angle fish-eyed shots add a necessary air of the surreal, giving Coppola’s film the otherworldly edge befitting of a Hinton adaptation. With such bravura aesthetics on show, it is a pity that the film’s narrative thrust and dramatic sense of intrigue doesn’t quite keep pace. We’ve seen such disillusioned teen characters depicted before, and unlike Coppola’s Godfather cycle/Apocalypse Now, Rumble Fish feels strangely absent of state-of-the-nation relevance.
An individual’s personal engagement with Coppola’s street-smart, gangland opera is likely to come down to that most subjective of adjudicators – taste. Whilst some may be able to overlook (or even embrace) the film’s wayward plot and wistful meanderings, others may find themselves more than a tad frustrated. Regardless, with both The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, Coppola not only announced himself to a whole new disenchanted generation, but also helped to break-in some of American cinema’s most talented young screen icons.