‘What is this, another glorious battle for the kingdom?’ The arrival of The Motorcycle Boy in Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish is a great moment, played with relish by a youthful Mickey Rourke. Interrupting a gang-fight that’s taken a good 15 minutes of film to set up, his appearance flips a switch that takes this adaptation of SE Hinton’s teen-text out of the realms of flick-knife cliché and into the world of existential entertainment. It’s a real shame that Coppola’s Zoetrope experiment got publically ignored and critically lambasted; films like this, The Outsiders, Hammett and One from the Heart are as good as, if not better than, most early 80’s fare.
But Coppola did not want another glorious battle for the kingdom. After the game-changing hit of The Godfather and its sequel, Coppola vanished into the introversion of The Conversation, and then the monumental cinematic achievement of Apocalypse Now. This chastening experience sent him back to the drawing board, demanding creative control for a series of small, minor works that frustrated his admirers, but look rather spruce now. Coppola wondered why kids shouldn’t have art movies, and the double whammy of The Outsiders and Rumble Fish soon answered that question; because kids don’t want art movies.
And yet there’s tonnes for adults to enjoy in Rumble Fish, which has a unique minimalism in appearance thanks to striking black and white photography by Stephen H Burum, and a percussive soundtrack by Stuart Copeland of The Police. Nicolas Cage, Chris Penn, Laurence Fishburne and more make for a capable bunch of punks, with Dennis Hopper embodies the absent father-figure and Tom Waits ideally cast as a philosophical bartender. Matt Dillon is the central character Rusty James, but plays much as he did in The Outsiders, like a teen idol from Golden Age Hollywood. The revelation here is Rourke, who channels Camus as the tough-talking rebel who sees something beyond petty turf wars.
Rourke approached his character as ‘an actor who had lost interest in acting’, which is somewhat ironic given the way his own career went. Rumble Fish drowned in expectations that its director would make another Godfather, but it stands the test of time as a bold experiment, one which evokes a thoughtful, lyrical, adult attitude rarely seen in cinema.