Movies We Love: Rumble Fish

Rumble Fish

Rumble Fish (1983)

“Even the most primitive of societies have an innate respect for the insane.”


It’s been two months since The Motorcycle Boy skipped town, leaving his gang of thugs in the rearview mirror of his bike as he made his way to California.  In the wake of his departure Rusty James, The Motorcycle Boy’s younger brother, has taken charge of the crew and is hours away from ending a treaty with a rival gang by going head-to-head with their leader.  As the brawl comes to a close The Motorcycle Boy reemerges and looks to pick up the pieces of the life he left in shambles.

Why We Love It

It’s been said that following the tumultuous making of Apocalypse Now that Francis Ford Coppola must have gone insane, because the films he made since that final chaotic masterpiece failed to ignite that sense of mastery displayed throughout the 1970s.  I disagree.  Rumble Fish may not *quite* be on the same plane of Coppola’s work in the 1970s, but it’s one of his most interesting films and is thoroughly entertaining to the eyes and ears.

There seemed to be some sort of fascination – or love – with 1950s high-schoolers during the 1980s.  Stand By Me, the Porky’s films, Back to the Future, and even Coppola’s other adaptation of an S.E. Hinton novel The Outsiders were all focused around teenagers and adolescence of the 1950s.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Rumble Fish is the best of the bunch, but it should be considered.  Its high contrast black-and-white photography plays to the time of the setting as well as offers a visual representation of the color blind The Motorcycle Boy – not to mention it’s just plain gorgeous. The time lapse fillers are interesting transitions to the next scene, and the spot-on camerawork in both movement and placement is mesmerizing.  Combine the visual flare with a groovy musical score by The Police drummer Stewart Copeland (his first gig as a film music composer) that sings during the dialogue and pounds the pulse during the brawls and Rumble Fish becomes one of the most sensuous films of the 1980s.

To complement the scenery and soundtrack the cast is made up of a who’s who of some of the best young talent of the time.  Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke show off their magnetic bad boy personas, Diane Lane is a pedophile’s worst/best nightmare, Nicolas Cage displays an aptitude to be normal and confident, and Chris Penn starts his run as the go-to tough guy.  The most impressive element of each, though, is their ability to deliver some of the film’s lines so convincingly.

Everyone refers to Rusty James and The Motorcycle Boy as Rusty James and The Motorcycle Boy.  There’s no short-hand version of their names when people talk to them, or about them.  I can imagine one of the most difficult tasks of the dialogue was saying Rusty James over and over without making it sound ridiculous.  As a culture we have a habit of shortening everyone’s first name for convenience.  Imagine not sounding silly by constantly iterating two full names instead of half of one.

As for Rusty James and The Motorcycle Boy themselves Matt Dillon played the young, not word smart brute like nobody else could at the time, and Rourke’s presence was unmistakably sexy-cool while even during his most introverted and philosophical moments.

Moment We Fell In Love

The first brawl of the film between Rusty James and Biff Wilcox.  Rusty and his gang stroll anxiously through the meeting point, jumping at each random sound.  Suddenly, a train goes by, loudly, and Biff and his crew emerge in the distance – but the camera stays focused on them while it sprints diagonally to follow their momentum before coming to a halt on Biff Wilcox.  Rusty starts to egg Biff on, Biff pulls out a knife, and the drums start to pound as the fight is on.  The pure energy of this entire sequence, elevated by the drums and editing, make for one of the most timeless fight scenes that not enough people have seen.

Final Thoughts

Rumble Fish is probably the least known picture of the popular films set in the 1950s, but definitely not due to quality.  It’s the most interesting film of the group and its unique visual style, soundtrack, and dialogue make it an easy pick to pop in at any time.  It’s an avant-garde film that doesn’t require a mood or patience.  It’s occasionally exciting and when it isn’t it’s hypnotic.

Read about more Movies We Love

Adam Charles has been a film fantatic and unhealthily obsessive purchaser of films he's never seen since the late '90s. He's lived in Austin, TX since 1992 and dropped out of college when he realized his full time job would better fund his dvd (now blu-ray) and movie poster addiction than his passion probably ever could. He is nearly out of financial debt, but it's gonna be another decade or so before he catches up on watching everything he's irresponsibly purhcased. He has written in the past for Collider.com and Horrorsnotdead.com, and can be found on twitter as @the_beef - a label he's had since well before Shia LeBeouf was even a sperm and therefore Adam wins.

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