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Rumble Fish: Special Edition DVD Review

Rumble Fish: Special Edition

February 4, 2006

Director: Francis Ford Coppola,
Starring: Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane, Dennis Hopper, Diana Scarwid, Vincent Spano, Nicolas Cage, Chris Penn, Laurence Fishburne, William Smith, Michael Higgins, Glenn Withrow, Tom Waits, ,

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DVD Review

History remembers Francis Ford Coppola’s, Rumble Fish (1983) as a film that was booed by its audience when it debuted at the New York Film Festival and in turn was viciously crucified by North American critics upon general release. It’s too bad because it is such a dreamy, atmospheric film that works on so many levels. It is also Coppola’s most personal and experimental project—on par with the likes of Apocalypse Now (1979) and One From the Heart (1982). Rumble Fish curiously remains one of Coppola’s often overlooked films. This may be due to the fact that it refuses to conform to mainstream tastes and stubbornly challenges the Hollywood system with its moody black and white cinematography and non-narrative approach.

Right from the first image Rumble Fish is a film that exudes style and ambience. It opens on a beautiful shot of wispy clouds rushing overhead, captured via time lapse photography to the experimental, percussive soundtrack that envelopes the whole film. This creates the feeling of not only time running out, but also a sense of timelessness.

Adapted from an S.E. Hinton novel of the same name, Rumble Fish explores the disintegrating relationship between two brothers, Rusty James (Dillon) and the Motorcycle Boy (Rourke). The older brother derives his name from his passion: stealing motorcycles for joyrides. The film begins with the Motorcycle Boy absent, perhaps gone for good, while Rusty James tries to live up to his brother’s reputation: to act like him, to look like him, and, ultimately, to be him. Rusty James’ brother is viewed as a legend in the town as he was the first leader of a gang and also responsible for their demise.

Much like Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949), the Motorcycle Boy is initially physically absent, but his presence is felt everywhere—from the shots of graffiti on walls and signs that read, “The Motorcycle Boy Reigns,” to the numerous times he is referred to by characters. This quickly establishes him as a figure of mythic proportions. When the Motorcycle Boy finally does appear—during a fight between Rusty James and local tough, Biff Wilcox (Withrow)—it is a dramatic entrance on a motorcycle like Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953). This appearance marks a significant change in the film. We begin to see the world through the eyes of the Motorcycle Boy, almost as if the whole film is taking place in his head.

Consequently, Rumble Fish is shot entirely in black and white to simulate his colour blindness. We even begin to hear the world like he does: voices sound echoey, disembodied, with his own heartbeat threatening to drown everything else out. It is this existential worldview that makes the Motorcycle Boy a tragic character. The rest of the film explores his attempts to come to grips with this outlook and his relationship with Rusty James, who views him as a hero—a label that the older sibling has never been able to accept.

As always, Coppola assembled an impressive ensemble cast for his film that fill out their roles admirably, but Mickey Rourke in particular, is mesmerizing as the Motorcycle Boy. He portrays the character as a calm, low key figure that seems to be constantly distracted as if he is in another world or reality. To this end, he uses subtle, little movements and often cryptic phrases that only he seems to understand.

The striking black and white photography of the film’s cinematographer, Stephen Burum, lies in two main sources: the films of Orson Welles and German cinema of the 1920’s. Welles’ influence is particularly apparent in one scene where the Motorcycle Boy and Steve bring a wounded Rusty James home. While Steve and Rusty James talk in the background, the Motorcycle Boy looms into a close-up, as if the lens were a mirror in which he was admiring himself. This deep focus shot (a favourite of Welles) shows how far removed the Motorcycle Boy is from his brother and from everyone. He is like a mirror, impenetrable and impossible to read.

Rumble Fish was tossed off as a self-conscious art film. However, now that some time has passed, I see it as a movie clearly ahead of its time: a stylish masterpiece that is obsessed with the notion of time, loyalty, and family. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Coppola’s film is that it presents a world that refers to the past, present, and future while remaining timeless in nature. With a few odd exceptions over the years, he has been content to merely rest on his laurels and reputation and crank out safe, formulaic films that lack any real substance or passion. Perhaps Coppola is tired from the numerous battles he has had with Hollywood studios over the years and simply does not have the energy to make the daringly ambitious films that he made during the ’70s and early ’80s. It is too bad, because Rumble Fish shows so much promise and creativity. One had hopes that Coppola could continue in this vein and make truly interesting films that constantly challenge its audience.

Special Features:

There is an audio commentary by Francis Ford Coppola. From the get-go he admits that this is probably his favourite film out of all of the ones he’s made because it is the closest to his heart. He talks about the evolution of the film’s memorable score and how he and Rourke modeled the Motorcycle Boy after Albert Camus. Coppola speaks admiringly of the cast who were willing to experiment and improvise. This track is a real treat for fans as the director speaks fondly about his movie and offers many excellent anecdotes and observations.

“On Location in Tulsa: The Making of Rumble Fish” is a retrospective featurette with lots of vintage on the set footage of Coppola and his crew planning how they were going to shoot a given scene. Alas, the cast soundbites were done during filming but this is still a pretty good look at how this movie was made.

“Rumble Fish: The Percussion-Based Score” takes a good look at the experimental score by Steward Copeland. He and Coppola have contributed new interviews exclusively for this DVD. In a nice touch, Copeland comments on the score over clips from the movie and demonstrates how he achieved certain sounds and the layers upon layers of sound.

There are six deleted scenes that feature footage of Rusty James and Steve who seemed to have more of a presence in the book. There is also a scene at school where the basketball coach asks Rusty James to beat up a player that sometimes show up on the TV version of the movie.

Another nice addition is the music video for “Don’t Box Me In” with Copeland backing up Wall of Voodoo’s Stan Ridgway whose distinctive vocals are perfect for this track.

Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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Rating: 97%

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