Next on our list is the 1983 film Rumble Fish. An adaptation of the novel by S. E. Hinton, and the first of three collaborations between Francis Ford Coppola and his nephew, Nicolas Cage. Opinion was mixed on the film at the time of its release, it currently stands at 71% on Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert said of the film “This is a movie you are likely to hate, unless you can love it for its crazy, feverish charm.” but then he said of Hellraiser 2 “It is simply a series of ugly and bloody episodes strung together one after another like a demo tape by a perverted special-effects man” like that was a bad thing so I suspect we shall not be film bros.
As mentioned already by my compatriot Lauren, the film itself concerns the life of one Rusty James, played by Matt Dillon. You’ll know he’s called Rusty James because his name is spoken by characters in excess of 50 times throughout the movie. That averages out to more that once every two minutes. I honestly don’t understand what the point of this was. It got to the point where I was beginning to wonder if perhaps a Rusty James is a name for some kind of deviant sex act and all of Rusty James’ friends are running a long con on him, telling him all about the ‘cool’ nickname they gave him and giggling behind his back. Rusty James is a ne’er-do-well, a minor teenaged hoodlum in an anonymous American town who lives under the shadow of his elder brother, The Motorcycle Boy (played by a pre-oh-god-what-happened-to-your-face Mickey Rourke). Rusty James drinks, smokes, fights and screws his way through his dysfunctional life while The Motorcycle Boy ponders the sheer futility of it all.
I’ve never read the book, so I can’t say for sure how faithful an adaptation of the source material it is. I can, however, confidently state with 100% certainty that the book is a flawless, near-perfect, completely accurate in pitch and tone adaptation of the feeling you get while studying a book for GCSE English. It’s all there. The film starts off with a hook, that little spark of excitement to make you think that this time, this time it’s going to be different goddammit, you’re going to enjoy this and not sit there sullenly, forcing your way through the book, passing each word like a kidney stone. It opens at Benny’s, a local Billiards hall where Rusty James and his gang spend most of their time, and Lawrence Fishburne (credited as Larry Fishburne) enters as Midget, a character I am convinced is merely a manifestation of Rusty James’ inner psychoses, as not a single other person acknowledges him throughout the course of the movie (of course, this is the fake 50’s, so they could just be some racist motherfuckers). Midget tells Rusty James that a rival gang leader wants to kill him and Rusty James announces his intentions to fight him. Great! Drama! Action! Fisticuffs! The fight itself doesn’t disappoint either. It’s set in some seedy underground tunnel with the two gangs approaching each other, exuding faux machismo like the music video for Bad.
Then the fight starts and it’s full of bizarre wacky acrobatics, like an amnesiac time-traveller from the future told them all about Parkour and they decided to try and re-invent it through sheer force of will. The rival gang leader cheap shots Rusty James with a shard of glass, putting a big gash across his chest. Then, in a burst of cool, the triumphant return of The Motorcycle Boy. The Motorcycle Boy’s introduction is beyond cool. Upon seeing his brother get shanked, he revs his bike and lets it go, sending it careening into the gang leader, running him down then fucking front-flipping through the air and landing back on its wheels. That’s the kind of shit John Woo looks at and goes ‘nah, I’m not doing that, that’s just plain silly. And sorely lacking in doves’.
Unfortunately, much like sitting down with, say, Romeo and Juliet, where your English teacher tries to trick you into taking interest by telling you it’s full of duels, hatred, murder and suicide (oh God fuck you so much Mrs. Edwards), after the initial spike of excitement, things soon slow right the fuck down. The film turns into a sequence of scenes that all feel strangely disconnected from each other, like you’re studying one chapter a week and by the time it’s next week, you’ve already forgotten the last. It certainly doesn’t help maintain the excitement levels that Mickey Rourke’s acting style could be described not so much ‘laconic’ as ‘monged out of his fucking gourd on horse pills’. He doesn’t even raise his voice when his brother gets stabbed. There hasn’t been a performance this one-note since the guitar solo in I Wanna Be Sedated.
You’ll probably have noticed that I haven’t said much about Nicolas Cage so far. That’s because, as Lauren mentioned, this film is disappointingly light in Cage. Playing Smokey, Rusty James’ second-in-command, his purpose seems to be little more than to be less fucked-up than Rusty James and to steal his girlfriend. As such I began to ponder if the film could have had any contributory effect on the Cage Method. Surely a film so early in his career, and with a collaborator as influential as Francis Ford Coppola would leave an impression, right?
I started with the off-kilter style of the film. The film is deliberately shot in an unusual black-and-white style, seeming to bring to mind the old German Expressionist silent films with it’s stark contrasts and its at-times unsettling soundtrack, all screechy strings, tinkly notes and odd organic, industrial noises, like Silent Hill having sex with a fairground carousel. It was an unusual choice and perhaps this left an impression on a young Cage, it’s stark contrasts providing a backdrop to Cage’s stark, bombastic acting choices. The film also brings its artifice to the forefront, daring you to peek behind the curtain, much like Cage’s over-the-top style threatens to expose the hollow shell of his character until you realise it’s crazy all the way down. For example, Coppolla choses to render the city as some kind of blasted wasteland. Possibly taking lead from The Great Gatsby and its rolling fields of ash, the streets of this nameless US city are permanently carpeted in rolling billows of smoke. However, in several scenes you can pinpoint the exact place where the smoke machine or bomb has been placed due to all the smoke emerging from it, thus making the scene look like the world’s most boring apocalypse, or perhaps the most poorly-attended riot.
The theory’s tempting, but it’s hard to throw weight behind it as the film eventually drowns in its own symbolism. Much like writing ANOTHER GODDAMNED ESSAY on all THE GODDAMN SYMBOLISM IN KING LEAR (I HATE YOU MRS. EDWARDS, I HATE YOU SO GODDAMNED MUCH) the film begins hammering you over the head with its own motifs. A clock is visible in every scene while an eternally-croaky Tom Waits gives a monologue about running out of time, the whole film is in black-and-white apart from two fighting fish that The Motorcycle Boy becomes obsessed with, longing to free them from their captivity. OK COPPOLA, WE GET IT, TIME IS FUCKING SACRED AND MATT DILLON IS A FISH.
All in all, it’s hard to recommend Rumble Fish to all except the most ardent Cage-watchers. It’s extremely Cage-light and not the most enjoyable of viewing experiences. While Valley Girl provides insights into the future of Cage, Rumble Fish inspires little more than confusion and slowly watching the clock. In every scene. Tick Tock.