Insomniac Movie Theater: Rumble Fish

by Trevan McGee on January 6, 2011

in Columns,Insomniac Movie Theater

Tonight’s Insomniac entry was 15 years in the making. When I was in junior high I loved S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” and went out of my way to read everything I could by the lady. I’d seen the movie adaption, but always thought that “Rumble Fish” would have made a better movie, as it dealt with more adult characters and themes. One night I had a dream that there was, in fact, a movie version and that it was in black and white with Matt Dillon as the star. I must have fallen asleep with the TV on because that exact movie exists and is the subject of this week’s entry.

Of all the 60s film school brats, few have enjoyed such a substantial drop in both quality and proliferation than Francis Ford Coppola, who I’m convinced bartered the last of his talent to finish “Apocalypse Now,” a filming process that stands next to Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” in its extremity, though for completely different reasons. It’s fitting then, that the making of both films and the obsession that gripped both directors were captured in the documentaries “Hearts of Darkness” and “Burden of Dreams,” respectively.

Anyway. 1984’s “Rumble Fish” is an excellent example of the same talents Coppola displayed in “The Godfather,” “The Godfather: Part II,” “The Conversation,” “Apocalypse Now,” and “One From The Heart” working against him. In the latter films, Coppola’s attention to detail and indulgent craftsmanship worked in favor of the Greek tragedy elements in the Godfather series and gave “Apocalypse Now” a realism rivaled only by Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.”

But “Rumble Fish” is a train wreck of pretension and self-indulgence capped by an atrocious original score from The Police’s Stewart Copeland and some truly wooden performances, which is especially ironic considering the movie is a character drama.

Based on the S.E. Hinton novel of the same name, “Rumble Fish” centers on Rusty James (played by Matt Dillon), a loner, streetwise adolescent from the same streets of Hinton’s other book-turned-movie that Coppola directed a year earlier, “The Outsiders.” Rusty James has an older brother he idolizes called –– unironically, mind you –– Motorcycle Boy. Motorcycle Boy (played by Micky Rourke) comes and goes when he pleases, boosting bikes and acting generally aloof. And that’s basically it.

There’s no forward motion to the plot. No grand scheme or commentary on class structure or the fragility of youth and young love. “Rumble Fish” is simply a vignette into the lives of about five characters over the course of a summer that doesn’t end so much as just fade out. And while there are plenty of great movies that offer only temporary glimpses into a memorable cast of characters’ lives without a driving incident propelling them forward, “Rumble Fish” isn’t one of them.

Coppola found a way to make black and white pretentious, as “Rumble Fish” is shot in stark monochrome with the only color coming from an aquarium full of beta fish in a pet store. The conscious decision to shoot in monochrome clearly wasn’t a budgetary one, as Coppola does it all for a simple visual gimmick that gets used three times throughout the course of the entire film.

What’s more, rather than live in the shadows and have some fun with the darkness and mystery that comes with black and white, “Rumble Fish” is remarkably well lit. Making even the outdoor sets look like theater props rather than living, breathing locales.

Another conscious decision that fails miserably is the asynchronous soundtrack. I’m not sure who decided the drummer from The Police would be the best choice for a composer, but Copeland’s soundtrack is ever present and constantly out of place. What’s more, Coppola dubs over other bands with Copeland’s music, which is not only confusing, but hilarious — especially when Rusty James is shooting pool in a jazz hall.

But it’s the performances that really kill “Rumble Fish.” Dillon is incapable of doing anything other than mugging for the camera and punctuating every sentence with the arbitrary “fuck” or “man.” It doesn’t help that he looks like a reject from “The Warriors” either.

Rourke puts on a master class in underacting. He’s so disconnected in his role that I’m pretty sure a production assistant had to check his pulse in between each take just to make sure he was actually alive.

Even with 15 years of stored up goodwill and eagerness to like the movie, “Rumble Fish” is a thorough disappointment. It’s a shining example of what happens when pretension overshadows execution and that there is an art form to playing subtle and when an actor is on the wrong side of that line, they appear dead.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 jack duhamel January 6, 2011 at 8:09 pm

good movie

– Jack Duhamel


2 Shelby January 6, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Wow, Trevan, I’ve always loved this movie, I just never took it *too* seriously I guess, but I loved the enigmatic and schizophrenic character of The Motorcycle Boy….I think I’ve always kind of thought that it takes place in another dimension, not really of this world…..kind of in a vacuum I guess.

It’s always entertained the hell out of me.

This makes me want to watch another from this time period, by S.E. Hinton, I think, called “That Was Then, This Is Now”


3 Eric Melin January 7, 2011 at 12:15 am

I just watched this for the first time this year, and I have to say, I agree with Trevan. I like the chutzpah of the choices, but none of it works. The stagey quality is obviously on purpose with the soundtrack, camera angles, and b/w, but raising the simplistic conflict of these “characters” (more like types) to the melodramatic level Coppola did and asking us to take it seriously was a gamble that didn’t pay off.

I like the idea, but it didn’t work, simply put. For a high-school noir with snappy dialogue, its own lingo, a great sense of humor, and lots of cinematic panache, I would recommend Rian Johnson’s “Brick.”


4 Chris Matthews November 23, 2017 at 11:38 am

Your criticism of Copeland’s music is way off the mark. It’s a perfect soundtrack; idiosyncratic and original. Of course the movie is over-stylised and pretentious, but that’s what makes it unique and very different so so much of the dross that came out of the 80s.


Leave a Comment


Previous post:

Next post: