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For Criterion Consideration: Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish

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When thinking of a director like Francis Ford Coppola, it’s incredibly difficult to avoid discussing films as influential and truly breathtaking as the first two films in his Godfather trilogy and arguably the greatest war film ever made, Apocalypse Now.

However, with his newest film Twixt hitting store shelves this week, it’s about time one of the director’s greatest and most underrated pictures is entered into that hallowed, career defining conversation.

Arriving the same year as his fellow S.E. Hinton adaptation, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish has become something of a revelation to those who have missed the film since its arrival, to middling reviews, in 1983. Becoming something of a cult darling for those who find the film as more than just an inspired experiment by one of that generation’s foremost filmmakers, Rumble Fish is a tone poem to a now distant generation where heroes came in many forms, even in the guise of free-wheeling bikers.

Based on Hinton’s novel, and with Hinton aboard as co-writer, the film follows the story of Rusty James, a young thug (a more melancholic version of, say, the “greasers” found in Coppola’s prior Hinton adaptation) who is finding it extremely difficult to break out of his brother’s shadow, especially with his departure prior to the start of the film. His life completely changes, however, when his brother, The Motorcycle Boy, does return into the fray. A film deeply inspired by cinema ranging from film noir to the angst-ridden dramas of the French New Wave, Coppola’s film is a thrilling meditation on everything ranging from brotherhood to hero worship, all in the guise of a love letter to a passed era of bikers, freedom and anti-hero legends.

Ostensibly a work of tone and aesthetic very much similar to a film like (despite this being far less brooding and truly angry) Only God Forgives, the narrative may be a bit slim, but the performances are ferocious. This may very well be the definitive performance given by a then very young Matt Dillon, with the actor giving a shocking sense of truth and realism to a character any lesser actor would have turned into a campy set of quirks. However, Mickey Rourke is the scene stealer here, then the embodiment of a generation’s hometown legend. Truly a “god” in this world (various bits of graffiti adorn the city, proclaiming that he still reigns, almost like an omnipotent deity), Rourke always seems cooler and sexier than the rest of the world around him, but the events of his life have seemed to turn him into a cold and distant man, a man without a true home. Dennis Hopper plays the boy’s father, and he’s superb, as is Diane Lane, Rusty’s girlfriend Patty. Toss in great supporting turns from the likes of Nic Cage, Chris Penn and even Laurence Fishburne, and you have an experimental coming of age drama that has something most cinematic experiments lack; genuinely moving performances, backing up the arresting aesthetic choices.

And arresting they truly are.

Coppola is at the top of his game here, using stunning black and white photography from Stephen H. Burum (who also shot The Outsiders) to full advantage, crafting a contrast-heavy coming of age tale that feels more like a distant film noir that only Coppola could truly create. With hazy street corners, dimly lit apartments and splashes of color giving the film a percussive sense of style, editor Barry Malkin is as big a star as anyone on screen here, ranging from a breathtaking opening coda setting up this world we are about to enter, all the way to the film’s final moment, a stunning conclusion that is as moving as anything you’ll see from this time period.

An avant-garde picture in the absolutely best sense of that word, the film may seem frigid and hard to approach, but oddly enough, there is a great deal of warmth found within the film. A melancholic sense of youthful hope abounds here, as does an equally powerful sense of youthful angst, with the viewer following the story of a man who is desperately in search of respect, love and most importantly, a home. More so the tale of a generation deeply inspired by a previous era’s sense of freedom, as embodied by The Motorcycle Boy, a man whose life has been spent, allegedly, on the open road (with time spent in California), it’s an experimental picture, but one that doesn’t lack a heart, a soul and a brain.

It’s also not afraid to show us how foolish this idol worship can be. A violent picture in many ways, no punches are pulled here, with a handful of fight sequences being heightened by the noir aesthetic, the editing playing just as aggressive as any of the fights. However, it’s also, in its own right, beautiful in its violence. Shot as if they were dance sequences of a punk rock Gene Kelly picture, there is a stark beauty to these bloody battles, something that only adds to the dream-like adoration for this now long gone era. Paired with a narrative that boils down to a story of brotherhood, the film becomes as powerful a drama as Coppola has yet crafted. Take for example, the film’s most relevant and provocative sequence, the scene from which the film gets its name. Rourke’s Motorcycle Boy describes the troubling reality of “Rumble Fish,” that some will try to kill themselves fighting their own reflection. The film’s core theme in a nutshell, Coppola’s picture goes from generational love letter to the very real story of a young man longing for an age where violence begat respect, an era where he and his brother would have been equals.

Overall, with The Masters Of Cinema bowing their own Blu-ray in the UK, Criterion should hopefully one day follow. A masterpiece from one of the film world’s most legendary directors, this is as underrated a film as any you’ll ever see. A truly breathtaking work of genius, this is simply one of the best films of the ‘80s, and an entrant into the conversation of best films from director Francis Ford Coppola. Hell, a new restoration would be worth it, if only for a new restoration of Stewart Copeland’s stunning score. Seriously, it’s an all time great bit of music that deserves the update. And same goes for the picture it accompanies.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.

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