Justin Peterson’s review published on Letterboxd:
Criterion Collection Spine #869
“If you're going to lead people, you have to have somewhere to go.”
So this movie is basically a rated R version of 'The Outsiders'.
Rumble Fish has long been on my list of Criterion Collection movies I wanted to check out. While I did not love it, I did really appreciate what Director Francis Ford Coppola was going for by the end.
After making 'The Outsiders' Coppola wanted to adapt another S.E. Hinton novel, but this time he wanted to give it some more edge and some art house elements. The ensemble cast has several early performances from some great actors like Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane, Nicolas Cage, Chris Penn, and Laurence Fishburne.
Rumble Fish was shot in black and white to give it a much older stylistic feel, with Dillon's performance as Rusty James being reminiscent of greaser like characters played by Marlon Brando or James Dean. I have not seen a lot of those movies, but that is the impression I got.
James is living in the shadow of his older brother 'The Motorcycle Boy', played by Rourke. His brother was the leader of a gang until he decided to look for answers by riding his motorcycle to California. During a rumble/fight early on in the film, Motorcycle Boy returns and throughout the rest of the story tries to help his little brother realize that being in a street gang is no way to live. Meantime there is a cop in the town who is looking for Motorcycle Boy to slip up just a bit so he has an excuse to take him out.
I am not really a fan of these greaser stories, but there was a point in the middle of Rumble Fish where Coppola started being more metaphorical with the story, which helped get me more invested. The sequence I am referring to is when James gets held up by two thugs and ends up getting hit over the head. We then get to see James have this really interesting out of body experience where he sees how the people in his life would mourn his loss.
The theme I took away from the movie is that 'The Motorcycle Boy' has come to realize the days of greaser street gangs are in the past, but his younger brother is trapped within this tough guy mindset. We see that despite having a nice girl friend, he is always down for a fight and looking for his group of friends to back him up. He has no interest in school, and has his head in the clouds by getting wasted and going to wild parties. This is all beautifully illustrated by the metaphor of the Rumble Fish at the pet store, where the only small bits of color in the movie are introduced by the fish.
Motorcycle Boy explains to his brother that the fish being in a tank makes them very aggressive, and they will even attack themselves if they look into a mirror. The only solution is for the fish to be set free into a near by stream. So with this metaphor we see that James in this greaser mindset is like the Rumble Fish, and he needs to learn to break free from this mindset. Then we get an additional layer at the end when Motorcycle Boy is gunned down after breaking into the pet store in attempt to free the fish and James runs to the scene. In the second bit of color in the movie we see the police going to handcuff James for being at the scene, and when they push him into the cop car the flashing lights are in color which remind us of the Rumble Fish once again. My interoperation of this, was that if James gets put in jail he will become even more violent and self destructive like the Rumble Fish. James does get turned loose, and in the last shot of the film we see him follow in his brother's path by riding out to California to search for meaning in his life away from this greaser mindset.
Once the story of Rumble Fish comes full circle I admit that it is an excellently made film with beautiful black and white camerawork and rich thematic elements toward the end. But I never really enjoyed James as a character despite Dillion's really good performance. To be honest I would have rather seen more from Nicolas Cage's character.
This is definitely a movie worth checking out, but I don't see myself returning to it.
Thanks for checking out my review and please give it a Like! Happy movie watching ... SKOL!