Cage #3: Rumble Fish (1983)
I can’t say I sympathize very much with Rumble Fish’s Rusty James. (Always Rusty+James, never Rusty or, heaven forbid, Rust. Rusty James.) He’s basically a punk who struggles throughout the film to be the Ultimate Punk and fails. See, his older brother Motorcycle Boy (again, always by that moniker as if it were on his birth certificate) actually was the Ultimate Punk until he left for reasons mysterious to his friends. In the neighborhood punk power vacuum, Rusty James has stepped up his game. Now he’s getting into gang fights like in the video for “Bad”, gets kicked out of school, and he’s messing around on his woman because he thinks he’s the king. But now Motorcycle Boy has returned, and a good thing too, for he saves Rusty James’ skin time and time again.
Rusty James wants to fight even if he’s always second best. He’s got a family name to uphold. (What is the family name? James? Boy?) His dad is another drunk played by Dennis Hopper. Maybe he was always best known for playing characters under the influence of some drug or another, but he was good at it, I’ll give him that. So Rusty James could either look to a degenerate or a thug for a male role model in his life. He went with the thug.
Upon the thug’s return it is clear he’s a changed man. Sort of. Mickey Rourke described the character as “an actor who no longer finds his work interesting.” Despite his insistence that he’s no longer in the gang life, he keeps. on. doing. gang shit. In his first appearance he runs over another dude with his goddamn motorcycle. Later on he antagonizes the police and commits a B&E. Nice move, partner. In a lot of ways, I wish the movie was about Motorcycle Boy realizing the error of his ways and finding a more peaceful existence. Too bad that happens before the movie even starts. Also too bad that Rourke was more interested in doing an impersonation of Brando. It’s a strange, mumbling performance that somewhat upholds everyone’s suspicions that Motorcycle Boy is crazy, but does little to convince us he’s a gangland Gandhi. I’m pretty sure anyone who tries to “rescue” animals from pet stores en masse really is a bit cuckoo.
Some interesting techniques are used by Francis Ford Coppola to illustrate Rumble Fish’s world. Most obviously a color trick used in an otherwise black and white film. It draws parallels between the Siamese fighting fish in the pet store and Rusty James – at different points they are the only things to take on any color, red and blue in both cases.
Motorcycle Boy has a rather on the nose explanation of the fighting fishes’ behavior, so I’ll not get into it here. (If you watch the movie and don’t get it, let me know. I’ll swing by sometime and hit you in the head with a cartoon mallet.) In an early scene of a gang fight, Coppola brings in a manic energy that is sorely lacking throughout the rest of the movie. As the two gang leaders draw close for their battle, trains race through the background, perhaps out of control on a collision course. Smoke lines the streets of this small podunk town, giving it an apocalyptic, war-torn vibe.
And something I initially dismissed as pretentiously showy is how the sky rolls by above Rusty James and his gang. The clouds form and disintegrate in timelapse photography while Rusty James makes his plans and has his fights.
Youth is wasted on the young, they say. Time is slipping past at an incredible rate and Rusty James fails to notice. He could easily spend the rest of his life trying to be on top of his little violent world and then end up just like his dad – drunk, washed up, wishing the past could have worked out a little better.
This story has its heart in the right place. Unfortunately, uneven direction from Coppola that seems to focus more on tricks than straightforward drama and an oddball performance from Mickey Rourke hold me back. Maybe I should read the book. I give this one five Siamese fighting fish (they’re not called “rumble fish” Motorcycle Boy! There’s probably a tag on the shelf that says it right in front of you!) out of ten.
And oh yeah, Nicolas Cage plays Rusty James’ semi-loyal second in command. And for once, Cage might be the only sane voice in the whole picture. Surely something that is not repeated often in his oeuvre.