In the reflective light of romantic teenage angst, men and boys become victims of their imaginary heroes. Rusty James (Matt Dillon) assumes the mantle of The Motorcycle Boy’s (Mickey Rourke) leadership of what was once a gang and is now a collection of poolroom drifters.

This is not so much a study in stereotypes, courtesy of Jimmy Dean’s legacy, but a love poem to the restless, doomed, anarchic integrity of orphaned hearts in a world that looks on freedom as a responsibility.

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“You’re better than cool,” Patty (Diane Lane) tells Rusty James. “You’re warm.”

He may have the moves; he may have the courage; he may have the sex appeal, but what he lacks is the vision and the knowledge.

“If there were still gangs around,” Smokey (Nicolas Cage) says, “I would have been president, not you. You ain’t got your brother’s brains. No one would follow you into a gang fight. You would get people killed.”

Rusty James walks tall in the shadow of his bro’s rep. The Motorcycle Boy left town a while ago for the West coast. When he returns without warning, the vacuum in these kids’ lives is filled, but The Motorcycle Boy stays back, no longer assuming authority over them.

“If you’re gonna lead people, you have to have somewhere to go,” he says.

Things have moved on. He can see that.

He tells Rusty James, ”California’s like a beautiful wild girl on heroin.”

Why come back?

After the glory days (The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather: Part II, Apocalypse Now) and the big fat turkey (One For The Heart), Francis Ford Coppola could no longer afford big budgets and so filmed two of S E Hinton’s teen gang novels back-to-back with many of the same actors. The Outsiders, which came out first, received a luke warm reception, but Rumble Fish is something else – stylized, black-and-white, innovative, with photography (Steve Burum) to match Touch Of Evil and a crackling script by Hinton and Coppola - “Contrary to popular belief,” their alcoholic, absentee father (Dennis Hopper) tells Rusty James, “your brother is not crazy. He simply miscast the play. He was born in the wrong century and on the wrong side of the river.”

This is Rourke a year after Diner and two years before 91/2 Weeks when his brooding minimalist style captures the camera. There is a wonderful line, when Steve (Vincent Spano), one of the pool hall habitués, the straightest of them all, says of The Motorcycle Boy, after he comes home, “He looks so old. I keep forgetting he’s 21.”

Lane is peaches and cream, although she plays Patty hard, as she does Ellen Aim in Streets Of Fire a year later. Cage, in his first movie for Uncle Francis, is still puppyish in the face, although the voice is unmistakable. A year later, with Birdy and The Cotton Club, he is on his way.

If Rumble Fish is a breeding ground for future stars, it is Dillon’s finest hour. Absurdly handsome, he epitomizes youth’s belief in its immortality. Rusty James is slashed and knifed in a couple of fights, but his wounds, that would have killed a mere mortal, miraculously heal. Five years later River Phoenix (Running On Empty) will take over the role of troubled teenager, culminating in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991). But for now, in 1983, Dillon is supreme, untouchable, recklessly flaunting his vulnerable talent.

Reviewed on: 04 Sep 2007
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The heroism of teenage violence against a background of iconic posturing.
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Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Writer: S E Hinton, Francis Ford Coppola, based on the novel by S E Hinton

Starring: Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane, Nicolas Cage, Vincent Spano, Chris Penn, Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne, Diana Scarwid, Tom Waits, William Smith, Michael Higgins

Year: 1983

Runtime: 94 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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