In many ways, Rumble Fish (1983) is a perfect double bill with The Outsiders (1983). Both are about troubled teens from the wrong sides of the track, both are based on novels by S.E. Hinton (who helped with the screenplays), and both are directed by Francis Ford Coppola. But whereas The Outsiders maintained a degree of gritty realism, Rumble Fish is more stylized and has an almost mythic quality.
Rusty James (Matt Dillon) idolizes his older brother, the feared and respected Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), who built the gang Rusty James now leads. When the Motorcycle Boy returns after a lengthy absence from town, Rusty James believes the glory days of gangs will return, but the Motorcycle Boy has no interest in reviving the past.
It seems off putting at first the protagonist is always referred to as Rusty James: not Rusty, not James, or even RJ. But consider what Coppola is going for. The name brings to mind the urban youth punk made famous by James Dean, the dashing, brooding anti-hero of the 1950s. But in the 1980s, that idea feels a little antiquated, a little long in the tooth, rusted out. Instead of a rebel without a cause, Rusty James, in a modern light, is a thug who idolizes a questionable role model, cheats on his girlfriend, drinks, smokes, picks fight, and gets thrown out of school. The rebel role isn't so romantic anymore; it's merely self destructive.
Coppola shoots the film in a style suggesting the end of an era. Except for a couple of fish a and brief reflection, the entire movie is shot in black and white with many deep shadows and off-center angles, very reminiscent of film noir and German Expressionism. Those genres employed often employed the dark, stylized cinematography to reflect existential angst. While those genres flourished against the backdrop of the rise of fascism and Cold War paranoia, Rumble Fish is about the downfall of a legend.
Strangely enough, the Motorcycle Boy's relationship with Rusty James reminds me of the title character's relationship with the boy in Shane (1953). Here is this violent individual with a mysterious, shady past, hero-worshiped by someone younger who wants to be just like him. And just like Shane, the Motorcycle Boy seems aware his time is drawing short and that he's no hero. Patterson the Cop (William Smith), an officer who'd loved nothing better than to be rid of him, follows him everywhere like a uniformed angel of death. A colorblind, somewhat deaf individual, the Motorcycle Boy sees and hears things differently from everyone else, giving him a different world view. One character says of the Motorcycle Boy he has no idea what he's thinking. Most just conclude he's crazy.
That central relationship between Rusty James and the Motorcycle Boy is really the strength of the movie. To be honest, anytime Mickey Rourke is not onscreen, the film falters. He makes his entrance atop his motorcycle not unlike a gunfighter appearing on his horse and brings to halt any activity. He never yells. He just stares off into space and barely speaks above a whisper. Dennis Hopper shows up as the boys' drunk father, and he's good in a role that amounts to little. Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Nicholas Cage, and Chris Penn show up in early supporting roles, but they seem forgotten as the movie progresses. Vincent Spano is a clean cut childhood friend of Rusty James, and he has a little more do. I think he's meant to be the audience stand-in, the outsider in the fold.
My recommendation: watch The Outsiders and Rumble Fish back-to-back. More than anything, it's a fascinating to see how the same writer and director can explore similar themes in such divergent manners.