Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Rumble Fish (1983)

Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane, Dennis Hopper

1982-3 must have been a very busy time for director Francis Ford Coppola. He travelled to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to film an adaptation of S.E.Hinton’s The Outsiders. He seemingly got on with Hinton so well that he decided to adapt another of her novels for the big screen as well. So, in between takes of The Outsiders he and Hinton knocked up a screenplay for Rumble Fish.

This period of work jump-started the careers of so many young actors. The Outsiders starred C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon,  Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise and Diane Lane. Rumble Fish again used Dillon and Lane, as well as Mickey Rourke, Nicolas Cage, Lawrence Fishburne and Christopher Penn. Dillon stars as Rusty James (known to his close friends and family as ‘Rusty James’). He is a 17-year-old tough idolising his absent brother ‘the Motorcycle Boy’. The Motorcycle Boy ruled their neighbourhood in the era of the gangs. Rusty James yearns for a return to those days so that he can carve himself a legend like the Motorcycle Boy did.

And thne the Motorcycle Boy returns. As played by Mickey Rourke (last seen in Body Heat) he is an introspective, somewhat sardonic figure, watching the action almost detachedly. He seems completely at odds with his legend. Oh sure, he can still fight, play pool and ride his motorcycle (“Is there anything he can’t do?” Rusty James’s pal Steve – Vincent Spano – asks). But he is not the swaggering gang leader that the stories make him out to be. It was he that ended the gang warfare. And he wants that era dead and buried. It distresses him to see his brother try to follow in his footsteps. Rusty James is convinced that he will grow up to be just like the Motorcycle Boy. But it is clear that the Motorcycle Boy takes after their mother who had a more “acute perception” and eventually escaped their small town to shack up with a Hollywood producer. Rusty James takes after his father who, played by Dennis Hopper much more realistically than in Best Shot, is a welfare-dependent alcoholic. Rusty James doesn’t have the smarts of his brother. Later on his girlfriend Patty (a young Diane Lane, unrecognisable from her mother-of-two in Nights in Rodanthe) dumps him after he attends a raucous party organised by his friend Smokey (Nicolas Cage). Smokey then starts dating her in his place. Rusty James challenges Smokey to step outside. Smokey points out that if it came to a fight he would beat Rusty James easily (Rusty James is still limping after taking a pounding in his last two fights). He pities Rusty James. And he points out that if the gangs ever did return it would be he who led them, not Rusty James. “You might have gotten by for a while on the Motorcycle Boy’s rep, but you have to be smart to run things. You ain’t got your brother’s brains. It’s nothing personal Rusty James, but nobidy would follow you into a fight because you’d get them killed – and nobody wants to be killed.” Rusty James’s violence is purposeless. As the Motorcycle  Boy says, “If you’re going to lead people you have to have somewhere to go.”

So why all the violence? Well firstly, it’s the only thing Rusty James can do. He saw the fame his brother achieved and he wants it too. Being a gang leader is the only way he can think of to get that. There is a parallel to the Siamese Fighting Fish – the “rumble fish” – of the film’s title. Put them in a tank together and the fish will fight to the death. Show a fish its own reflection in a mirror and it will try to attack itself. Again, purposeless violence. The Motorcycle Boy is convinced that this is a product of their environment. In a small tank they need to prove their dominance. He bets that if they were in the river, free, they would not need to fight (a belief that later turns out to be justified). His wish is that Rusty James can too find the river and follow it to the ocean. He wants his brother to realise that fighting over one small piece of turf is pointless when there is a great wide wonderful world out there. He came back wiser from his trip to California, but he never made it to the ocean before being drawn back home. He wants his little brother to find the ocean.
The Pet Shop Boys tried out their new look

The film is very stylised. How could it not be when musician Tom Waits plays a billiard hall owner? Coppola filmed in black and white – the only colours in the movie are those of the rumble fish themselves and Rusty James’s reflection in a police car window at the end of the film. The dialogue is also rather stylised, though I soon got used to it. Stewart Copeland (of The Police) did the music, and that, too, is very interesting. I would not say that it is a film that grabs the viewer and pulls them in. It was adapted from a novel for young adults, but I could not imagine teenagers queuing around the block to see a black and white film. But it is an fascinating watch, not least for the young actors making their names here. Matt Dillon is excellent as the frustrated Rusty James, trying to live up to a legend. Mickey Rourke reminds us that he was once a smooth young talent, rather than the slab-faced behemoth he appears today. Diane Lane is good and Nicolas Cage also puts in a good turn. The one person who didn’t become a headline name really is Vincent Spano, who plays Rusty James’s clever best friend Steve, and that is a shame because I thought he was an interesting character: the studious young man who probably, out of all of them, has a future but is drawn back time and time again through a terrified fascination with the gang world and instinctive loyalty towards his kindergarten best friend Rusty James. When he wonders out loud why no one has put a bullet through the Motrocycle Boy’s head it is partially wish-fulfilment on his part, knowing that his continued existence is what is preventing his friend from moving on and finding a proper life outside the gangs. Maybe this motivates the Motorcycle Boy in his final escapade: he dies so that his brother can be freed and live. 

What have I learnt about Oklahoma?
Tulsa is not like I imagined it. It is a seedy run-down city, like the Great Falls of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. There is plenty of space for rumbles in the freight yards, under bridges and down alleyways. Drugs are rife. Yet its isolated position on the plains is made clear. The outside world is all around. Roads are thick with dust, winds whip through the streets, and the hurtling, boiling clouds are continually above, reflected in the storefront windows.  

This is the world that Rusty James wants to take over – though it is hard to see why. But in actual fact his turf is outside the city proper. Crossing the bridge to ‘The Strip’, brightly lit, lined with bars and pool halls and adult cinemas, the streets thick with hustlers, prostitutes and soldiers, is a grown-up adventure, and here he is out of his depth. 

Can we go there?
Rumble Fish was set and filmed in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The sign for Cain’s Ballroom can be seen prominently in a number of rooftop shots. ‘Benny’s Billiards’ was created at 13 Brady Street. Almost exactly a year ago the property hosted an exhibition entitled ‘Motorcycle Boy’s Never Coming Back’. Rusty James and Biff have their fight down by the train tracks beneath the overpass at Archer and Boulder. The James’s apartment was 103 ½ E Dewey Street in Sapulpa (20-30 minutes south-west of Tulsa). The drugstore with the magazine rack was further down the road at 201 E Dewey. The bridge leading over to ‘The Strip’ was the 23rd Street Bridge (now known as the 21st Street Bridge confusingly enough) which crosses the Arkansas River. The pet store with the ‘rumble fish’ was located at 1023 N Greenwood Avenue. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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