‘Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see, when you’re young, you’re a kid, you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years, a couple of years there… it doesn’t matter. You know. The older you get you say, â€œJesus, how much I got? I got thirty-five summers left.â€ Think about it. Thirty-five summers.’ – Benny
Rumble Fish is a film dominated by time. Clouds race across the skies, shadows drip from walls, clocks slice through the seconds in the foreground, hang on every wall and a soundtrack by Stewart Copeland ticks and bangs with the percussive anxiety of time running out. ‘Biff Wilcox is looking for you Rusty James, says he’s gonna kill you,’ Midget tells Rusty James (Matt Dillon) at the beginning of the movie. Rusty James is trapped in the wrong time, missed his moment. The gang fights he’d love to bring back finished when he was 11 years old. Then his older brother, the Motorcycle Boy, was a gang president and local hero, but the Motorcycle Boy is gone, leaving a younger brother with a hankering for former and imagined glories, getting his kicks from his girl Patty (Diane Lane) and hanging out with his pals. The fight is a rare moment of interest, a re-enactment, and Coppola has it choreographed as a dance scene, giving Mickey Rourke, as the Motorcycle Boy, an entrance to kill for. With Motorcycle Boy’s return to the family home - complete with a beautiful performance from Dennis Hopper as the ‘lawyer on welfare’ sot of a father - Rusty James hopes for a return to the good old days, but he’s been wounded by Biff and his life looks to be falling to pieces as he realises his own limitations and, more poignantly, the limitations of his obviously damaged brother.
But how has time treated Rumble Fish? My friends and I, as teenagers, watched and rewatched Rumble Fish so many times that if Mickey Rourke was ill one day and couldn’t make it, we could have played the role. Of course, we knew we were actually Rusty James wanting to be Motorcycle Boy, and we feared that in actual fact we were Steve (Vincent Spano), Rusty’s goofy nerd friend who harbours a rage against the Motorcycle Boy: ‘I don’t know why someone hasn’t just taken a rifle and blown your head off.’ When we watched it, I remember being uncertain of when the film was set. The black and white (and the sound design) take their cue from the Motorcycle Boy’s colour blindness and intermittent deafness - ‘like watching black and white television with the sound turned down’ - but it also has the effect of making the film seem like something from the 50s or 60s. The glimpse of a Casio keyboard or a modern motorcycle jars. The film is a dream vision, smoke and fog drift across the screen and nothing is ever quite what it seems, with hallucinations and out of body experiences. Watching it now I realise it’s actually an ageing man’s view of youth. Youth is not exhilarating and carefree; it is already in a process of deterioration. Poor Rusty James can hardly walk by the end of the film, he’s so battered and beaten. All that he’s got going for himself is his wilful ignorance against Motorcycle Boy’s experience: ‘he looks really old, like 25’. Rourke’s otherworldly performance, his quietness that had the technicians dub the film ‘Mumble Fish’, his occasional willingness to use vicious violence, his brilliantly delivered ponderings - ‘Even the most primitive societies have an innate respect for the insane’ - creates that most elusive thing: a convincing portrait of cool.
Given what happened to Rourke through the subsequent two and a half decades, not to mention Coppola, who is currently capping his career with a horrendous so-bad-it’s-sad Val Kilmer piece, watching Rumble Fish persuades me that time … time is a very peculiar item.