Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Rumble Fish

It's a bit of a chore being a Mickey Rourke fan. I've been working my way through the man's filmography since I heard about The Wrestler, and he's quickly become one of my favorite actors. However, many of his best performances comes from downright mediocre films (The Pope of Greenwich Village, anyone?), so at times I have to struggle through a movie in order to get to the chewy caramel center that is Rourke's performance. Rumble Fish, sadly, fits in the trend.

Francis Ford Coppola's follow up to The Outsiders, Rumble Fish starts Matt Dillon as "Rusty" James, a high school tough guy challenged to a fight at the start of the film. His friends warn him that his older brother, the mysterious Motorcycle Boy, worked hard to establish a peace amongst the city's gangs and that Rusty would displease him for breaking the settlement. Rusty dismisses the warnings; the Motorcycle Boy's been gone for months, so what say does he have in things?

Rusty shows up for the fight and gains the upper hand only for the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) to show up, upset at his brother's actions. Rusty's foe Biff takes advantage of the moment and slashes Rusty, enraging the Motorcycle Boy, who sends his hog flying into the boy.

Up until this point, the film struck me as similar to Martin Scorsese's lead up to the music video for "Bad:" it's in black in white, it's somewhat laughably acted, and it involves a gang fight. But Rourke completely changes the game. His Motorcycle Boy is colorblind (which may explain the monochrome), partially deaf and aloof. One wonders if he took one too many punches to the head, and I couldn't help but think about Randy "The Ram" Robinson. However, unlike The Ram, the Motorcycle Boy is far from pathetic: Rourke plays him like a god, gently moving through the film, offering guidance to those who want to be like him but can never attain his level.

Rourke alone is, as always, reason enough to watch the film, but Coppola handles the abrupt shift in tone with some...questionable tactics, to say the least. Where the first 30 minutes played out like "Bad's" fight, now Coppola fashions the movie into an ode to the older brother, the primary idol of many young boys. Rusty looks up to the Motorcycle Boy's more hedonistic days, when he ran the streets and beat down all those who opposed him. However, it's this more angelic figure now before him who represents the true ideal, and it vexes Rusty. He eventually comes to think of his brother as crazy, which may or may not be accurate.

Ultimately, Rusty realizes too late that he should look up to his brother as he is now, and the Motorcycle Boy must meet an inevitable fate. Characters like that cannot really live, anyway; either the hero becomes corrupted or he must die, and Rusty comes to view the purity of his brother. A simple message, and one that might have been more powerful if it had been tackled simpler.

For a film that emphasizes time's ability to pass its characters by, it sure does drag out; I kept checking my watch every 5 minutes while watching the thing. Coppola tries to shove so much stuff into the frame at all times that you suffer from burnout before Rourke even shows up. It's cluttered and unfocused, and while I think that's what Coppola was aiming for, it doesn't work. Nevertheless, Rourke gives one of his best performances, one of those roles that turns an otherwise mediocre movie into a must-see. I don't know if, like The Pope of Greenwich Village, it's so good that I'd even sit through the film again, but it is yet another master class from an actor who should have been so much bigger.

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