While adapting S.E. Hinton’s classic teen angst novel The Outsiders into a motion picture, Francis Ford Coppola ran into a problem: he was uninspired. This film, populated with fresh-faced actors, many of whom would go on to superstardom, didn’t speak to The Godfather filmmaker as personally as he had hoped it would. The project was a stab at redemption for the filmmaker — a film that would likely have commercial success following the financial failure of his One From the Heart. But the Hinton work that truly appealed to Coppola was not The Outsiders — it was Rumble Fish. Rumble Fish seemed to speak directly to Coppola, particularly its themes of brother admiration, as Coppola had idolized his older brother. So the filmmaker had a plan: he would shoot The Outsiders and Rumble Fish back to back, with similar casts and crews. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers — who were distributing The Outsiders — were unhappy with early cuts of that film and passed on distributing Rumble Fish. That didn’t stop Coppola, a filmmaker who had always played by his own rules and forged his own path, sometimes with disastrous results. Coppola went ahead and began production on Rumble Fish, eventually securing a distribution deal with Universal Studios.
While The Outsiders is the more commercial of the two — the film that more people are more inclined to bring up; the film that ends up getting shown to high school English lit classes on late afternoons when teachers need a break — Rumble Fish is the more striking. Coppola called it an “art film for teenagers”, and you only need watch a few minutes to pick up on what he’s talking about. Rumble Fish exists in a surreal black and white landscape, where the clouds are somehow always racing overhead while everyone else moves at a seemingly normal pace, as if the characters are trapped in some sort of frozen snow globe with the real world speeding by outside. Coppola channels expressionist filmmakers like F. W. Murnau and Robert Wiene as he creates titled angles and warped close-ups. Coppola also staged the film’s fight scenes as dance sequences, hiring a choreographer and co-director of the San Francisco Ballet to help stage the film’s big, early fight scene.
Matt Dillon is Rusty James, a teenage delinquent on the slow side. He drifts through life, only interested in fighting and fooling around. His older brother, the mysterious Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) has left town but is still spoken of in hushed, revered tones. The Motorcycle Boy is a legend, and the only person Rusty James truly looks up to. Yet when the Motorcycle Boy unexpectedly returns, he seems different. He’s quieter; more philosophical. And more haunted. Rourke plays the character as aloof and otherworldly, his voice barely registering above a whisper. He’s like a ghost haunting the film, existing outside of the action until he’s drawn back in, with violent results.
Rumble Fish is the type of film perfect for opening the eyes of budding young cinephiles. People longing to expand their horizons need only sit back and watch Coppola’s strange, surreal saga unfold to have their interest piqued. Not only does Coppola succeed at channelling experimental art films into a more traditional narrative, he also accurately captures what it’s like to be an angry, directionless teen. A silent sequence where Rusty James fantasies he sees his bikini clad girlfriend Patty (Diane Lane) laid out on a high shelf above his shop class is the epitome of bored, horny teen lust made real. Rumble Fish is also steeped in sadness and regret, which is pretty much how I remember my teenage years. There’s a hopeful shot at the very end of the film, but otherwise a sense of fatalistic disadvantage hovers over Rumble Fish — these are characters who are fully aware that they’ll never get any further than they are right now; they’ll never escape. They’re stuck in that snow globe universe, the outside world — with those clouds — forever passing them by.
Criterion has given Coppola’s Rumble Fish the treatment it deserves, with a new, restored 4K digital transfer that beautifully highlights how stunning and dreamy the film looks. A full list of features is below.
- New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director of photography Stephen H. Burum and approved by director Francis Ford Coppola, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- Alternate remastered 5.1 surround soundtrack, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio
- Audio commentary featuring Coppola
- New interviews with Coppola, author and coscreenwriter S. E. Hinton, associate producer Roman Coppola, and actors Matt Dillon and Diane Lane
- New conversation between Burum and production designer Dean Tavoularis
- Pieces from 2005 about the film’s score and production
- Interviews from 1983 with Dillon, Lane, actor Vincent Spano, and producer Doug Claybourne
- French television interview from 1984 with actor Mickey Rourke
- Locations: Looking for Rusty James, a 2013 documentary by Alberto Fuguet about the impact of Rumble Fish
- New piece about the film’s existentialist elements
- “Don’t Box Me In” music video
- Deleted scenes, with a new introduction by Coppola
- PLUS: An essay by critic Glenn Kenny