Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Rumble Fish (1983)
By Eric Jessen 9/1/09
Rumble Fish looks like an artsy masterpiece: a tactile, grimy and grungy black-and-white wonder. But the visual assault, the relentless style suffocates the characters and the performances. It blurs any glimmer of a story. And an awesome cast which includes some of my favorite actors (Mickey Rourke, Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper) is wasted. They take a back seat to Francis Ford Coppola and the cinematographer Stephen H. Burum's extreme camera angles and Wellesian deep focus.
Rumble Fish is dazzling and it looks original. It has the visual indulgence that reflects the work of a "real artist.” It has the carnival extravagance of a late 60's and 70's Fellini and the photography of street corners and shadowy alleys remind me of 20's and 30's German expressionism. Unfortunately Rumble Fish is a movie without a base. The structure, the story and the characters are flimsy. They seem adrift in the endless fog of an unnamed urban city nightmare. We hold on by a string.
The only coherent character in Rumble Fish is Rusty James, a local biker gang hero played with a naive teenage-jock obliviousness by Matt Dillon. Rusty has taken over as the leader of the biker gang while his brother, a local legend known as “The Motorcycle Boy” (Mickey Rourke), is in California. Rusty rounds-up his brethren, Smokey (Nicolas Cage), B.J. (Chris Penn), Midget (Laurence Fishburne) and Steve (Vincent Spano). They skip down to an abandoned garage or prance around under a bridge for fights against rival gangs like the “Jets” or “Sharks” from West Side Story. After Rusty is cut across the chest by his nemesis Biff Wilcox (Glenn Withrow), the Motorcycle Boy unexpectedly appears and comes to Rusty's rescue. Mickey Rourke does his best to play the slightly crazed biker gang legend. He thickens his throaty whispers, his hair is crumpled and disheveled. Rourke looks dazed and confused in the role. He's stripped of the “suave desperation” that he had in Diner and the calm and sturdy demeanor he had in Body Heat. The jarring low angles and uncomfortable close ups mixed with misty, murky medium shots make Rourke's character seem like a ghost. That was probably the intention, but with Rourke I'm used to having something “real” to grab on to.
Rusty and the Motorcycle Boy's poor, boozing father is played by Dennis Hopper. Considering his part in Apocalypse Now and especially his later performance in Blue Velvet, Hopper seems perfect to play a dirty old, inebriated bum. He's a very entertaining over-actor and his over-the-top showiness usually pops. But in Rumble Fish Hopper simply blends in to the dream world with the cast of quasi-realistic characters.
As Pauline Kael once said about art-conscious movies, they float but never touch the ground. This is definitely true of Rumble Fish. But taking into account Francis Ford Coppola's rough stretch in the 80's, the bankruptcy of his company, the failure of One From the Heart, I'm glad to see that he's once again made something that at least floats in the first place.