Rumble Fish is a story of a young man - Rusty James - who yearns for the return of the glory days of gang life and who wants to be president of the gang much as his brother was before him. But his world is a one in which gang war has been quelled by a truce crafted by Rusty’s brother. Rusty lives in the self-imposed shadow of his older, much more clever and capable brother.
Rusty’s brother, “The Motorcycle Boy” played by Mickey Rourke is charismatic, cool, and can seemingly do anything he desires. He is much admired by gang members and is idolized by Rusty. The characters marvel at his fighting skill, his intelligence abd his understated authority. The audience is also are convinced that, at least in this world, the Motorcycle Boy is someone special.
“Rusty James”, played in a career defining performance by Matt Dillion, does not have the intelligence or skill of his brother. Nor is he as capable a leader or a vision of where to go. We soon come to learn also that Rusty is too naïve to know he may never be the man his brother is.
When the older brother returns after a mysterious two-month long absence we are presented with events that set Rusty James‘ life in a new direction.
Francis Ford Coppola’s skillful and highly stylized direction takes us through this moving story. Set in black and white, the film has a bold style reminiscent of the films of the 1950s. The use of inventive camera angles shows us the beautiful urban underbelly of bridges and tunnels and gives us several magnificent shots which mirror moments of rare beauty in the poor and disjointed lives of these characters.
Devices and imagery of time, timepieces and clocks appear throughout the film and resonate poignantly as we hear Tom Waits behind the counter of a diner talk about the loss of youth. This loss is fine when you are young, knowing you have “35 summers left”. But our characters drift through their youth unaware of the significance of either their days or the passing of time.
Only the enigmatic Motorcycle Boy has glimpses of insight into the lost time our characters spend and the often-meaningless existence they live. Perhaps surprisingly, it is only the alcoholic father - played with restraint by Dennis Hopper - who sees Motorcycle Boy’s behaviors for what they are: the behaviors of a man living a life in which he doesn’t belong. This may be the reason why the Motorcycle Boy has taken a keen interest in the Rumble Fish in the pet shop. These fish also do not belong where they are. This interest in the Rumble Fish frustrates an idolizing and impatient Rusty James, but it is an interest he slowly and painfully comes to understand.
In visually memorable scene we see Rusty and the Motorcycle Boy standing outside and talking. Behind them is an enormous old clock, with no hands and has long ago stopped tell the time. This symbolism may suggest an end to the idol and reckless life Rusty lives as he starts to learn some of the lessons the Motorcycle Boy tries to teach him.