“Rusty James can’t live up to his brother’s reputation. His brother can’t live it down.”
That’s the tagline for this Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece and if you haven’t already seen Rumble Fish (1984) you should. Ignoring the novelty factor of watching a crazy young and star-studded cast: – Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Laurence Fishburne, Chris Penn, Nick Cage, Tom Waits to name a few… it’s breathtaking on several levels.
Stylish cinematography, great choice of shots, inventive scenes all lend to creating a real dream-like quality. The opening rumble, which felt different to anything I’d seen before, typifies this. Think West Side Story on LSD…. But far grittier with balletic violence, and offering a truer depiction of what it is to be young, dumb and ready to slide down drain pipes, leap wire fences, prance about deserted buildings and… rumble.
I mean from the off you get that beat flavour, and the dialogue really hammers home the beatnik aesthetic, further nailing down that dreamlike quality… nailed down dreams? Maybe not, but it smacks that cool cat sensibility into your hip face, dig? Some nice lines throughout. Scrap that, because some of the dialogue in this film is about as tight and thought-provoking as it gets.
Benny: ‘Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see when you’re young, you’re a kid, you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years, a couple of years there… it doesn’t matter. You know. The older you get you say, “Jesus, how much I got? I got thirty-five summers left.” Think about it. Thirty-five summers.’
That line is delivered by Benny (Tom Waits), described as one of the last beatniks of the contemporary music, and fittingly/arguably given the best line of the movie.
The writing? S.E. Hinton wrote the book and co-wrote the screenplay, and she most assuredly has that same style attributed to a Kerouac or Burroughs and, for me, it was a little surprising to find out Hinton is a woman. She tackles the subject of gangs beautifully, albeit accessing and casting her eye more on the emotional desperation of it all.
Toward the end of the film, in a scene in a pet store, we discover the true nature of the title, Rumble Fish. Rumble Fish are a type of fighting fish, and so the metaphor and explanation begins. The fish are of a vivid colour separated in their tank and prone to fighting their own reflection.
The Motorcycle Boy: ‘They belong in the river, I don’t think they’d fight if they had room to live.’
Patterson the cop: ‘Someone ought to get you off the streets.’
The Motorcycle Boy: ‘Somebody ough to put the fish in the river.’
It’s what this film is about, being boxed in like fish in a tank, banging against the glass, all set against the madness of gang culture, but a film expressing what it is to live in the inner-cities. I guess, for most of us, this is an idea that carries weight and emotional accessibility, and certainly if you’ve ever felt that built up rage of being boxed into small housing, the noise, the sweat and pollution, the living on top of one another in crowded tenements, you may begin to understand how raging against the city sprawl can manifest itself in certain self-destructive and rumbling impulses.
If you’ve only got 35 summers left… make sure you watch this film!
Review by Tom Conrad