Rumble Fish: Francis Ford Coppola’s hypnotic and radical coming-of-age drama

You can’t stumble into Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish, expecting another film with the same look and storytelling of his The Godfather films. I know I was so bored by it the first time – I had asked, “Am I really watching a Francis Ford Coppola film?” , because I expected to see another The Godfather.

It’s one of his less appreciated films, and I can totally see why. The Godfather might’ve seemed radical to the studio that produced it back in the ‘70s. Rumble Fish dared to be even more radical. It fits neatly into what you call “avant-garde cinema”. The focus here is more on style and mood than substance.

Roger Ebert mentions in his review that Coppola called it “an art film for teenagers”; but apparently it didn’t quite work for them as Coppola had expected it to. I don’t think it even worked for those who worshiped the films of Godard. However, there are exceptions. I’m one of those people for whom the film worked much better on the second or third viewings.

You have to be in the right frame of mind to see it. And by “right”, I don’t necessarily mean “cheerful” or “happy”, but perhaps a troubled state of mind would be more appropriate because it’s a film about troubled people. I’m just speaking from my personal experience. But, different strokes for different folks, you know.

Rumble Fish, based on a novel by S.E Hinton, is cut from the same cloth as West Side Story, Rebel without a Cause and Coppola’s own The Outsiders (also written by Hinton and released in the same year). It’s an 80’s film which thinks it belongs in the 50s. It has a little of all the themes present in the aforementioned films.

However, Rumble Fish is more about the bond between two brothers – Mickey Rourke’s “The Motorcycle Boy” and Matt Dillon’s Rusty James, his younger brother. “The Motorcycle Boy” is something of a legend among the kids on the street, and Rusty James looks up to him. He’s been away for a while and now he is back.

Coppola introduces Rourke in a grand fashion – in low angles, on a big motorcycle, oozing so much style and sex appeal. The incredibly sultry Diane Lane plays Rusty’s girlfriend. The film opens with Rusty and gang preparing for a fight, but Rusty’s mind is more preoccupied with thoughts about her than the fight – he even forgets about it after a make-out session with her.

Dennis Hopper plays the boys’ whacked out, drunk and gibberish-spewing father, a role that seems to have been tailor-made for him. Nicholas Cage makes quite an impression too in a small role. There is something so assertive and unapologetic about the style of the film, and I was completely entranced by the beauty of it.

The black-and-white images – with the exception of two sequences in color – are hypnotic, noirish and unreal. The backdrop is constantly filled with fog and steam, which enhance the film’s overall aesthetic appeal. The memorable soundtrack by Stewart Copeland is a keeper.

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