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Rumble Fish
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by Jack Sommersby

"More of a Guppy"
1 stars

One of Coppola's many financial follies, with this one grossing less than $3 million off a $10 million budget, though his follow-up, the outstanding "The Cotton Club," semi-redeemed him.

Francis Ford Coppola's abominable Rumble Fish is such an all-out disaster it should be labeled "unfit for human consumption." It's that palpably awful. Which is a shame in that admittedly it's rather spectacular to look at; the underlying problem, however, is that the lush visuals have been laid upon such quintessential banality -- it's akin to that old term "trying to put lipstick on a pig." This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise coming from the gifted but misguided Coppola who just one year prior attempted something similar with his catastrophic One from the Heart, which absolutely smothered a paper-thin story with a top-heavy visual schema the minuscule content couldn't possibly support. Rumble Fish is an adaptation of a teen novel by S.E. Hinton, a fine author who also penned the book Coppola adapted into the acceptable 1982 The Outsiders; she was also responsible for the work that served as the basis for the excellent Tim Hunter-directed Tex, and the differences between that and Rumble Fish are immense. Both star the naturalistic Matt Dillon who impressed in his debut as the good-natured high-school rebel in 1979's remarkable Over the Edge; here, starring as seventeen-year-old Rusty-James, he's unfortunately mannered and uncouth and abrasive practically from the word go, and the performance is virtually unvaried throughout. It were as if Dillon thought blatantly overacting with an extroverted physical swagger would somehow conjure up vivacious impressions of the legendary James Dean, only Dillon hasn't so much as an iota of control this time around -- it's an almost-unwatchable piece of showboating where you can utterly care less about either Rusty-James's emotionalism or his fate; you're just glad to be rid of this obnoxious bore the second the ending credits start to roll. Equally vapid is Mickey Rourke's supposedly iconic bad-boy The Motorcycle Boy who has has just returned to his hometown after a brief hiatus in California where he ventured out to to locate the estranged mother who abandoned him and Rusty-James and their unemployed alcoholic of a father (Dennis Hopper, who looks like he literally just crawled out of the nearest sewer); with a partial hearing deficiency and color-blindness, this attitudinizing bore is all puerile posturing; and Rourke, who was magnetic as the arsonist in Body Heat and the womanizing law-school student in Diner, can't come up with anything fresh or convincing. He's just a bag of half-assed mysticism that has all the cumulative force of a bake sale, forever striving for a commanding dynamism that never coalesces into the organic, only the otiose.

Rumble Fish has been dazzlingly photographed in black-and-white by the superb cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, with an evocative production design by the celebrated Dean Tavoularis (who partook in Coppola's occasionally brilliant, ultimately unsuccessful Apocalypse Now), and it's distressing to see their bravura efforts have been bestowed upon such lackluster, context-deprived material that couldn't withstand a mere gust of wind. With the justly-praised Tex Hunter's minimalistic approach was generally without distinction, yes, but it was the right fit for a screenplay where, despite some late-in-the-game plottiness, the three dimensional people populating the screen and piquant dialogue were always coming through; by contrast, for some unfathomable reason Coppola has chosen a bizarre German Expressionalism look for Rumble Fish complete with cloud-passing exteriors, arty camera angles, shadows, and fish-eye-lens shots that are always calling attention to the film as such and leaving us wondering what in the world all this surface-level bombast is doing at the service of a story that hasn't nearly the girth to support it. Coppola has a tin ear for dramatics, and a tin ear for verbiage (the Motorcycle Boy philosophically muses to his brother, "You know, if you're gonna lead people you have to have somewhere to go"); he's so out of touch here you're oftentimes left staring mouth agape contemplating what in the world Coppola is going for where solipsistic symbolisms rule the day, especially with colorized fish in a pet-store aquarium -- see, this breed of fish are natural fighters that are kept separated from one another, and the Motorcycle Boy lectures Rusty-James that street-gang violence is a waste, and it's his ardent quest to release the fish into a river so they'll be free and not be in close proximity to fight. Heavy. There are no characters in Rumble Fish, just sketchy composites that fail to draw us in on a basic responsive level, and this is chiefly because Coppola has partaken in a spurious cinematic exercise that's all about a fuzzy theme rather than a grounded vision that can sustain itself; simply speaking, taking Hinton's novel (her stuff is similar to the noted southern author Bobbie Ann Mason of In Country - the greatest teen-girl tale ever written - who also etches marvelous small-town dailiness with understated charm) and dressing it up with all this inappropriate artifice baffles one's mind -- Coppola might as well be pairing one of his Northern California-based wines with a paper plate of week-old meatloaf. Aside from the technical credits the only viable contribution is the impressionable supporting performance by Vincent Spano who, cast against type (his last acting job was as the charismatic Romeo-like Shiek in Baby, it's You), plays the nebbish, bespectacled bookworm friend of Rusty-James with uncanny persuasiveness; he manages to remain creditable amid a sea of sensationalistic inanity that almost certainly reaches its nadir in an amateurish fantasy sequence where a badly-injured Rusty-James's levitating body visits those he's acquainted with, which absolutely reeks of the ostentatious. Ditto this titanic terror of a film.

Watch "Tex" instead, which has more than stood the test of time.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=34128&reviewer=327
originally posted: 02/21/21 08:35:32
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USA
  09-Oct-1983 (R)

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