Express Yourself: Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish (1983) – Blu-ray review
Like After Hours or Punch-Drunk Love, Coppola’s teenage odyssey joins that rare breed of film where a Hollywood master cleanses the palette through pure, unbridled experimentation.
(Francis Ford Coppola, 1983)
Where do you go when you have absolutely nothing left to prove? After that dazzling run during the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola would have been forgiven for coasting. Instead, he went even crazier in the 1980s than he did during Apocalypse Now’s jungle adventure. First he blew his budget several times over to transform low-key romance One From The Heart into a kaleidoscopic folie-de-grandeur; then he elected to film yin and yang teen movies back-to-back as if he was a newcomer and not the father figure of modern American cinema.
Rumble Fish was the second of those two S.E. Hinton adaptations, and a (self-)conscious attempt to move away from The Outsiders’ classicism into a surreal, avant-garde dreamscape of high-contrast, Expressionistic imagery. It’s a film made in such a unique style that it’s as if Coppola is seeing what he can get away with. So he adds bold swabs of colour to the dreamlike monochrome, hires a ballet choreographer to block out the fight scene while his camera swings and swoops around them and asks The Police’s drummer Stewart Copeland to deliver rhythmic ambience with an unusual not-quite-rock score.
This skews dangerously close to what the MGM lion might call “arse for arse’s sake” – but, crucially, Coppola has a great story to hang his self-indulgence on to. Storywise, Rumble Fish is a simple, evocative tale of two brothers – one a near-mythical outlaw, the other a feckless teenager hanging on his bro’s every word – that chimed with the director’s own relationship between his elder sibling. The acting style is closer to Scorsese, a post-Cassavetes improve session in which hothead Matt Dillon rails against the world while Mickey Rourke subverts his reputation for craziness (on-screen and off-) by delivering gnomic wisdom with softly-spoken grace. Around these two excellent actors swirl a frankly astonishing supporting cast, easily the equal of The Outsiders’ famous Brat Pack gathering. The opening scene alone introduces Tom Waits, Laurence Fishburne, Chris Penn and Nicolas Cage. Later they are joined by Dennis Hopper, Diane Lane and even Sofia Coppola, giving a far more natural and engaging performance here than in her ill-feted turn in The Godfather Part 3.
Does it hang together? Not entirely – but the slightness of the piece is also its joy. Coppola used then-new video techniques to shoot his rehearsals, positioning the actors into visualisations and photographs of the locations. (The footage shown in the extras resembles a prototype of the green-screen shoot of something like Sin City; no wonder Rourke was so comfortable in that film). It’s an inspired directorial choice, allowing Coppola to maintain the organic feel even against such fastidious compositions. Of particular note is the mid-section of the film, as Rusty James follows The Motorcycle Boy on a night through a town that’s like the underworld, teeming with extras and a million bits of activity. It’s one of Coppola’s great passages of pure cinema, the abstract artiness in perfect sync with the rugged realism of the stars.