"Even the most primitive of societies have an innate respect for the insane."
- the Motorcycle Boy
I always thought that I had seen Rumble Fish. But it seems that I confused this movie with the Fisher King. Considering that both movies have fish in the title, I think you can understand my confusion. But now I really wants me to see Nicolas Cage in a Terry Gilliam film.
Before we get into the movie itself, I need to discuss Nicolas Cage and his familial relationships. Nicolas Cage was born Nicolas Coppola. His father was August Coppola, a famous academic and author. His uncle was Francis Ford Coppola (Director of Godfather and Apocalypse Now) and Talia Shire (Yo, Adrian!). Nicolas's two older brothers, Christopher and Marc, were also involved in the entertainment industry. Nic changed his name to Nicolas Cage in order to avoid the appearance of nepotism. But I guess when you get a chance to work with one of the most critically acclaimed directors of the 20th century (who just happens to be your uncle), are you really going to skip that opportunity?
Around 1983, Francis Ford Coppola was in the middle of filming The Outsiders, when he discovered another novel by S.E. Hilton named Rumble Fish. According to popular folklore, Coppola was drawn to the novel because of the strong personal identification he had with the subject matter - a younger brother who hero-worships an older, intellectually superior brother, which supposedly mirrored the relationship between Coppola and his brother, August (Nic's father). Coppola worked with Hilton to adapt the screenplay on off days during shooting of the Outsiders. And production for the film started almost immediately after the Outsiders shooting finished with almost the same cast and crew.
The film centers on the relationship between Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), a revered former gang leader, and his younger brother, Rusty James (Matt Dillon), a teenaged hooligan who aspires to become as feared and respected as his older brother but doesn't quite have the ability. The movie opens with Laurence Fishburne walking into a diner and proclaiming "Biff Wilcox is looking for you, Rusty James. He's gonna kill you, Rusty James." And with that statement, the movie just bursts onto the screen. Through the use of camera movement and character action, Coppola is able to give the opening scenes a real sense of vitality and urgency. It's so exhilarating to watch that you might to forget to notice Tom Waits playing Benny (and looking grizzled as fuck even back in 1983) and Diane Lane (who looks about 14 in this film) playing potential love interest, Patty. All this frenzied camera work leads up to a great gang fight (cheorgraphed by Michael Smuin of the San Francisco Ballet) and first appearance of the Motorcycle Boy.
At this stage, the film changes gears drastically and enters an almost dream-like state. Voices get more subdued. Lighting and shadows become more accentuated and smoke starts appearing randomly (signs of German Expressionism?). I assume this is to portray the Motorcycle Boy's perspective (he is color blind and going deaf). It adds a nice claustrophobic yet desolate feeling to the proceedings. But then you get an out of body experience and things take a turn to the surreal.
Mickey Rourke as the Motorcycle Boy absolutely haunts this film like a specter. When he is not wandering around, whispering metaphors and being treated like royalty in funky pool halls, all the characters react as if he is still present in the scene. This is a great contrast to Matt Dillon's Rusty James character. Dillon plays his character with youthful rage, testosterone and alienation. His portrayal in this makes Nicolas Cage work look absolutely subtle.
And speaking of Nicolas Cage, he once again has a small part as Rusty James's best friend, Smokey. Nic plays this role with a nice combination of guile and quiet intelligence. His conversation with Rusty James near the end of the movie just comes across as smart and pure cool.
In conclusion, Rumble Fish is a weird little film. The second 2/3 of the film is trippy as hell but solid writing and a great performance by Mickey Rourke prevent this film from flying too far off the tracks. Plus it has some absolutely breath-taking cinematography and a great propulsive soundtrack by Stewart Copeland. Check this film out if you feel like venturing out for something different.
One final note about this movie that may bother only me: Is Nicolas Cage wearing the same boots that he wore Valley Girl? Why do I notice such things?