Francis Ford Coppola is an auteur that reviewers and fans alike love to turn on – for every revered Godfather or The Conversation, there's a One From The Heart or Tucker: The Man and His Dream that's spat upon and critically eviscerated. But time most often bears out this mercurial cinematic genius, as evidenced by the recent re-visiting of his mid-period oeuvre (Apocalypse Now Redux, The Outsiders: The Complete Novel and the reissue of One From The Heart). Joining the parade of Coppola films that are being unearthed and appreciated anew (or more likely, for the first time) is the overlooked and underrated S.E. Hinton adaptation Rumble Fish.
Filmed on the heels of Coppola's lauded and adored adaptation of S.E. Hinton's classic The Outsiders on location in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Rumble Fish hinges upon a mesmerizing performance from the young Matt Dillon as Rusty James, a street thug who's coming up in the world while mourning the way things used to be when his older brother, The Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), was the undisputed leader of the gangs. When Rusty violates a "no rumbles" treaty set in place by his sibling during a scuffle with Biff Wilcox (Glenn Withrow), The Motorcycle Boy re-appears, having been absent for a couple months. Over the course of the ensuing few days, Rusty and his brother find themselves facing an inescapable and unknown future that could alter them both irrevocably.
Coppola describes Rumble Fish early in his engaging commentary track as "an art film for teenagers," which is particularly apt, given the highly stylized visuals (the striking use of black and white intermingled with precise deployment of color) and florid dialogue, adapted from Hinton's novel by the author and Coppola. Thematically commingling Greek tragedy and sensationalistic Fifties-era juvenile delinquency flicks like Rebel With a Cause or The Wild One, Coppola sets up Rumble Fish as the tightly wound, gritty antecedent to The Outsiders; suffuse with paranoia and a relentless sense of desperation, Rumble Fish is the dark to The Outsiders' relative light. Aside from the vivid cinematography and weighty themes, Rumble Fish boasts an impressive cast: Nicolas Cage in his first major role; Laurence Fishburne, Chris Penn, Tom Waits, Dennis Hopper, Diane Lane, Diana Scarwid, Rourke and Dillon help flesh out the ensemble. The baby-faced Dillon anchors the film and one wishes he could be this consistently great again, although his recent turns in Crash and City of Ghosts hint that this once-white hot thespian could reignite.
Fueled by Stewart Copeland's uneasy, percolating percussion score, Rumble Fish is a minor masterpiece of mood and performance that isn't among Coppola's best works, but certainly among his most unfairly maligned. This film merits a revisit from those who dismissed upon initial release and those fans who have treasured this movie for the last 22 years will delight in enjoying it all over again.
Rumble Fish is presented in a striking, lovingly restored 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen that gives life to Stephen H. Burum's evocative, chiaroscuro cinematography. It's a great image that belies the film's age and is marred by very few, relatively minor defects (some noticeable shimmer in the opening moments, for example).
The pulsating, insistent soundtrack has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1 (Dolby 2.0 stereo is also on board) and sounds as good as the image looks – the dialogue is clean and free of distortion, with no drop-outs or degradation. Again, the soundtrack sounds as though it was recorded yesterday, rather than in 1983.
Considering the film's often overlooked status, it's heartening to see that Universal has seen fit to include a fair amount of supplemental material – Coppola contributes a typically candid commentary, in which he discusses the film's themes, its cast, adapting Hinton's novel and filming on location in Tulsa, as well as displaying his ample pride in the finished product. Given that even the most maligned films in his canon have received (relatively) deluxe DVD treatment with considerable bonus features and commentaries, where's the love for Apocalypse Now? Just curious.
Also included is a 11 minute, 40 second fullscreen featurette titled "On Location in Tulsa: The Making of 'Rumble Fish'," comprised of new and vintage footage, as well as interviews with the cast and crew; six deleted scenes, playable separately in time-coded, non-anamorphic widescreen for an aggregate of 20 minutes; "'Rumble Fish': The Percussion-Based Score," an 11 minute, 53 second featurette detailing the creation of Stewart Copeland's score (his first for a major motion picture) and featuring interviews with Coppola, Copeland and sound designer Richard Beggs blended amid vintage footage. The film clip-heavy music video for "Don't Box Me In" featuring performances from Copeland and Stan Ridgway while the theatrical trailer for Rumble Fish, presented in rough looking non-anamorphic widescreen, rounds out the disc.
A minor though wholly worthy entry into Francis Ford Coppola's filmography, Rumble Fish is an evocative, gritty tale that's laced with weighty themes and anchored by several stellar performances. Unfairly bashed by critics upon release in 1983, Universal's excellent remastered package merits revisiting from detractors and fans alike. Highly recommended.