In the sun drenched sleepy streets of Tulsa, juvenile delinquent Rusty James (Matt Dillon) receives word that Biff Wilcox is looking for him. His trusted friend Midget (Larry Fishburne) notifies Rusty James of the time and place, “Tonight, under the arches, behind the pet store about ten o’clock.” B.J. (Chris Penn) promises to back his friend up in the fight, while the clever Smokey (Nicolas Cage) and bookish Steve (Vincent Spano) urge Rusty James not to show.
Rusty James is excited because fights give him some vague memory of “the old days, when we used to have rumbles. A gang really meant something back then.” Things haven’t been the same since Rusty James’ older brother left town, but during the fight, the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) returns triumphantly. With his mother somewhere in California and father (Dennis Hopper) a drunk, Rusty James eagerly anticipates the day he’ll be just like his older brother.
The color blind Motorcycle Boy seems withdrawn, distracted by a strung out floozie (Diana Scarwid) and the “rumble fish” at the pet store. Not the brightest of gang leaders, Rusty James falls into a trap laid by Smokey to separate him from his girlfriend Patty (Diane Lane), while a menacing cop (William Smith) waits for any excuse to kill Motorcycle Boy, jealous of how the kids look up to him. All that Motorcycle Boy can say is that the rumble fish wouldn’t fight if someone put them in the river.
On location in Tulsa shooting a film version of S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders in the spring of 1982, Francis Coppola heard about another book the author had written when she was older – “and drunk, I think” – called Rumble Fish. Coppola added, “It had tremendous, really impressive vision and dialogue and characters and complicated ideas, the kind of ideas you don’t totally understand in your head but you feel that you understand them.” He quickly adapted a screenplay, which Hinton made suggestions to.
Coppola planned to stay in Oklahoma and shoot the movie back-to-back with The Outsiders, utilizing the same crew and some of the same actors. Mickey Rourke had auditioned for a role in The Outsiders and impressed Coppola enough to earn the part of Motorcycle Boy in Rumble Fish. His character’s color blindness got Coppola thinking about making the picture in black and white. In contrast to the warm Technicolor glow and mass appeal of The Outsiders, the director saw Rumble Fish as an art film for kids.
Coppola’s ability to make two movies in a seven-month span was due in part to a mobile electronic production facility he’d developed. An Airstream trailer was fitted with Betamax recorders and monitors that enabled Coppola to not only pre-visaulize the film during rehearsals, but edit it while he was shooting. The idea was to control the filmmaking process down to the tiniest detail. Coppola’s vision was that one day “we’ll be making movies with no sets at all. We’ll work with only a stage. And it will look totally realistic.”
Universal Pictures planned to build word of mouth by premiering Rumble Fish at the New York Film Festival in September 1983. The screening did not go well. Critics with the mainstream press launched an open revolt – Richard Corliss of Time Magazine appreciated the film, but remarked it was “a professional suicide note” – and audiences never gave it a chance. But in subsequent years, Coppola noted, “If someone asked me to show a film that I made that I liked, I would perhaps show Rumble Fish.”
A recent release that jumps to mind while watching Coppola’s stark, highly stylized literary adaptation is Sin City, due in part to the huge ensemble casts and the presence of Mickey Rourke in both films. But while Sin City is dumbed down to the level of a hyper-violent video game, Rumble Fish goes the other way. It’s hyper-imaginative, embracing an experimental style that brings to mind the wild and hallucinatory classic German films of the 1920s.
Hinton never feigns interest in developing her characters, but one of the joys of Rumble Fish is waiting for which familiar face will pop up next. The opening scene boasts Larry Fishburne, Matt Dillon, Chris Penn, Nicolas Cage and Tom Waits. Mickey Rourke and Dennis Hopper turn in mesmerizing work. A percussion-heavy musical score by Stewart Copeland is oddball, but the expressive sound design and visual effects – including a scene in which Rusty James’ spirit floats out of his body – compels me to credit Coppola with making the greatest student film of all time.
Brett Cullum at DVD Verdict writes, “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.”
“A minor though wholly worthy entry into Francis Ford Coppola’s filmography, Rumble Fish is an evocative, gritty tale that’s laced with weighty themes and anchored by several stellar performances. Unfairly bashed by critics upon release in 1983, Universal’s excellent remastered package merits revisiting from detractors and fans alike. Highly recommended,” writes Preston Jones at DVD Talk Review.
Scott Weinberg at DVD Clinic writes, “Up until a few days ago, Rumble Fish remained as the only Coppola film that I’d never seen, and I’m not too surprised to discover that I quite enjoyed Frankie’s little ‘juvie’ experiment. If it reminds you of several other street gang stories, I suppose that’s because it’s supposed to — but the master filmmaker brings his own unique sensibilities to the movie, and the result is a flick that’s admittedly rather broad (and more than a little … weird), but pretty darn entertaining nonetheless.”
“That’s right, Rusty James. These are Siamese fighting fish.” View the pet store scene from Rumble Fish with Mickey Rourke and Matt Dillon.