“Man, I love fights man” is not just a piece of early dialogue but is the essential core of Rumble Fish. The Francis Ford Coppola piece is engaged with a group of gentlemen who love to knock one another senseless. Rusty James (Dillon) misses the glory days of gang warfare. He wishes to live up to the expectations many have of him, especially those that compare him, rather unfairly, to his brother. That legendary status has not passed on to the younger sibling, but he is trying his hardest to capture that lightning in a bottle effect. It is hard to like James, his smug attitude and self-assured smugness are grating and eternally obnoxious. But it is the fallout of his missing brother, Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) that establishes this, and also the lack of law and order among these newly warring street gangs.
His actions in response to his missing brother, to me, aren’t exactly understandable. They are stated with conviction and performed well, but the rebel biker looking to incite violence and cause misery wherever he goes has never appealed to me. We are expected to forgive James for his misgivings and attitude, but where is the point in that? There is no underlying subtext or physical action that would suggest he is a man worthy of respect, praise or a change in attitude. When he isn’t cracking beers in the kitchen of his lover’s house or preparing himself for fights with fellow gang leaders, he is not doing much else. Cage, Dillon and Penn have a nice back and forth between one another, but much of it amounts to idle chit chat that will get under the skin of Coppola’s characters and leave little impact elsewhere.
But there is where the charm should be. Rourke does well as the Motorcycle Boy, and the disparity between him and his younger brother is well realised and effective. Much of the heavy lifting in Rumble Fish comes from its revelations of character, the young brother trying to pick up the pieces of his brothers’ legendary status and cobble it back together. Coppola’s framing choices and shot direction are exceptional, the extreme close-ups of the older brother whilst the younger of the two lies in the background suffering a knife wound. The narration over the top of this scene brings about the integral doubts and grief of James. Rumble Fish has the same issues I found in The Last Picture Show. Where its black and white cinematography may be nice on the eyes, its director and writing cannot move past the violence and relationships at the core of, apparently, every young adult.
Rumble Fish has all the artistic integrity you would expect of a passion project, Coppola guides these characters along well enough and gives them plenty to do, but there is no redeemable reward. It is a film for those that feel they would thrive on the streets and in a gang, busting up bad guys and wooing whoever they wish. His fight scenes offer strength in his direction, but with the over-the-top villains and Dillon kicking the air so much, clambering along walls and swinging around like Tarzan, it is hard to take it with too much seriousness, Aimless, silly, and impressive at times, Coppola has crafted a film that would work better if it could retain some level of guilt or humanity in its leading character. Still, that is hard to do when Rourke launches a motorcycle at a rival gang leader, and he spins off into the air with comic effect.