DVD Review: Rumble Fish

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Francis Ford Coppola | CAST: Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane, Diana Scarwid, Vincent Spano, Nicolas Cage
RELEASE DATE: 4/25/17 | PRICE: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray $39.95
BONUSES: director audio commentary; making-of featurettes; deleted scenes; interviews with performers, crew, filmmaker, film historian, and author; and full-length documentary Locations: Looking for Rusty James by Alberto Fuguet
SPECS: R | 94 min. | Drama | 1.85:1 widescreen | 2.0 surround

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio  | Video | Overall

Although Francis Coppola will forever be known for epics (the Godfather films, Apocalypse Now), fans of his work know that three of his “smaller” films are the true gems in his filmography. Those films are The Rain People, The Conversation and this remarkably intense and beautifully crafted 1983 feature, based on a well-loved young adult novel by S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders).

The fact that Coppola made what amounts to an “experimental” film from a YA novel is only one of the many exceptional things about Rumble Fish. The visuals are indeed gorgeously trippy for a major studio-backed film, but the film’s ensemble of performers is also truly impressive, comprised of up-and-coming talent and a few well-chosen veteran performers. If this wasn’t enough, the script by Hinton and Coppola is tightly written, with sentimental (but not corny) dialogue and well-sketched characters — particularly the lead character, a conflicted teen gang member (Matt Dillon, Armored), and his older brother, the alienated “Motorcycle Boy” (Mickey Rourke, Eureka).

The film was a flop in its initial release but quickly became a cult item, thanks to the then-burgeoning VHS format and frequent showings on premium cable networks. Its teen-delinquent-meets-screwed-up family drama has continued to resonate with viewers young and old. The film’s back-to-back production with The Outsiders demonstrated Coppola’s versatility as well as the way in which YA novels could be turned into beautifully stylized films.

The Criterion edition of the film contains all of the supplements that were included on the 2005 Universal DVD release: a full audio commentary by Coppola, two making-of featurettes and deleted scenes. The new supplements created for this edition run several hours and offer fascinating insights into the film, its location shoot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the way it has affected its diehard fans. A new onscreen interview with Coppola has him discussing why he shot Rumble Fish back-to-back with The Outsiders — he felt “imprisoned” in the candy-colored universe of the latter, and badly needed an “antidote.”

Mickey Rourke and Matt Dillon in Rumble Fish

As a result, he made Rumble Fish in black and white, a move that he says added a note of “poetic realism” to the picture. He seems genuinely proud of the film but notes an early “mistake” he made — asking the brilliant filmmaker Chris Marker to shoot second-unit footage (Marker found Tulsa uninspiring and flew home to France). He also notes that he was disappointed that the teenage audience he specially made the film for disliked it for the most part.

Coscripter Hinton, author of the original novel, discusses the Greek mythology she overlaid on the story, as well as the fact that she wound up loving the film despite having major qualms over the amount of cursing ad-libbed by the actors.

Both the film’s leads praise Hinton in their interviews. Diane Lane (Trumbo) recalls how much she enjoyed making a very “male” film that was in fact written by a woman writer. Matt Dillon talks about his love for all of Hinton’s books (he also starred in the Hinton adaptations Tex and Coppola’s Outsiders). Both stars also praise Coppola for the feeling of “family” one finds on his sets, and his “risk-taking” as a director.

In their supplement, director of photography Stephen H. Burum and production designer Dean Tavoularis talk with each other about the film shoot, their approach to the film’s visuals and Coppola’s innovative techniques for rehearsing the film — he had the actors do their scenes in front of a green screen with improvs allowed.

Another supplement offers an appraisal of the film’s “existentialist” tone. Among many nods to the philosophy was the fact that Coppola had Mickey Rourke groomed and costumed to look like Albert Camus. In other, vintage segments we see Dillon, Lane, Vincent Spano (Fatal Secrets) and producer Doug Claybourne interviewed on the Canadian talk show City Lights. The “missing” star, Rourke, is present in the form of a 1984 French TV interview in which, among other things, he acknowledges the film’s failure at the box office, saying “[The lead characters] are lost souls. A lot of people didn’t like that.”

The most intriguing and rewarding supplement is a full-length “cinematic essay” that finds Chilean filmmaker Alberto Fuguet visiting Tulsa, as he explores his deep love for Rumble Fish. Fuguet accompanies his striking b&w footage of Tulsa with an audio track in which he and fellow cultists for the film from Chile and Argentina discuss it in depth. They talk about how they first saw it, with those who happened upon it by mistake having had the strongest response to it.

Fuguet’s friends and colleagues eloquently discuss their devotion to Rumble Fish, but he himself has the highest praise for the film, talking about how it made him want to be a writer and a filmmaker: “This is my religion. These [characters] are my saints. This is the film that brought faith back to me.”

The documentary will have little resonance for those who haven’t see Coppola’s film, so it is a perfect inclusion in a set like this one. It is ultimately a haunting meditation on how seeing certain films can mark us forever and wind up changing our view of the world. Says Fuguet, “Films only work if you talk about them.”


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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”