The Tao of Nicolas Cage: Rumble Fish

By  · Published on January 6th, 2017

A young Cage is ready to rumble and pick up some knowledge from Uncle Frank along the way.

“You know, if there were gangs around like in the old days, I’d be running things, not you. You’d be second lieutenant. You might have gotten by for a while on the Motorcycle Boy’s rep, but you have to be smart to run things. You ain’t got your brother’s brains. It’s nothing personal, Rusty James, but nobody would follow you into a fight because you’d get people killed – and nobody wants to be killed.”

I had a bit of an internal debate as to whether or not I wanted to discuss Rumble Fish. Yes, Nicolas Cage is in the film, but he only has about ten minutes or so of screen time, so is a weekly column focusing on Cage the best place for a Rumble Fish discussion?

Yes. Yes it is.

Rumble Fish was the second of two movies director Francis Ford Coppola did based on S.E. Hinton novels, the first being The Outsiders. The film isn’t a sequel to The Outsiders, but it sort of takes place in the aftermath. We have different characters and the location is never specified, but we can safely assume that Rumble Fish takes place in Tulsa so it’s possible that we’re dealing with acquaintances of Pony Boy and the gang. Whereas The Outsiders deals with gang warfare in the mid-60’s, Rumble Fish yearns for the days to return.

Rusty James (Matt Dillon) is your basic teenage hoodlum. He doesn’t do anything too outrageous, but he can’t seem to stay out of trouble. He’s not the smartest kid around, but he’s streetwise, tough and has himself a good girl in Patty (Diane Lane). The problem facing Rusty James is that he can’t seem to get out of the shadow of his brother, the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke).

Make no mistake about it, Rusty James loves his brother. He looks up to him and wants to be just like him. Frequently he tells people that when he gets older he’s going to look just like the Motorcycle Boy. Everyone scoffs at the notion. Rusty James doesn’t have what the Motorcycle Boy has. The Motorcycle Boy has a certain swagger to him, something that try as he might, Rusty James just doesn’t have.

Making matters worse for Rusty James is the fact that the world his brother grew up in simply doesn’t exist anymore. The Motorcycle Boy made his name and built his legend by being the President of his gang and his gang ruled the town. But the work doesn’t work that way anymore. There are cliques and various unions that form, each having their own bit of turf, but they’re not gangs, not like they had in the old days. No one rumbles anymore.

Rusty James desperately wants to bring that world back so he can build his own reputation. The Motorcycle Boy sees things differently. He wants to stir Rusty James in the right direction.

Nicolas Cage plays Smokey and he’s an interesting character to peg. He’s sort of friends with Rusty James. They hang out at the same joint, a diner named Benny’s run by Tom Waits, and they’re part of the same crew (but not gang because gangs are no more!) but there’s some sort of friction within their relationship. Smokey is clearly the smarter of the two and he’s not actively looking for trouble the way Rusty James is.

Eventually Patty dumps Rusty James because he doesn’t treat her all that well and he ends up sleeping around with another girl. Smokey swoops right in and begins dating Patty. Rusty James confronts the two of them at Benny’s and that’s when it’s revealed that Smokey orchestrated a fairly elaborate scenario to have Rusty James fool around with another girl and purposely set it up so that information would make it back to Patty. And Rusty James isn’t mad about any of this. He’s hurt, but not mad. You know why? Because as he put it, he wouldn’t have been smart enough to come up with something like that.

This exchange between Rusty James and Smokey about Patty is Cage’s beefiest scene within the entire film. This is the moment that Smokey explains that if gangs were still around he’d be running things. Rusty James would merely be his second in command. Despite this being Cage’s longest bit within the film he doesn’t have a whole lot to work with. He gets a mini-monologue of sorts which he delivers quite well. While the amount of words said may be few, they do serve an important purpose. You get a clear sense that Smokey is the smarter and more dominant of the two. This helps fully round out the character of Rusty James.

Cage’s Smokey isn’t a minor character exactly, but he’s certainly a secondary one, appearing mostly in the background of the story. If Cage doesn’t get to do a lot here what can we take away from him as an actor? A lot actually, but we have to look at Uncle Frank.

Rumble Fish was Cage’s second feature film – provided you don’t count Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which I don’t.* In the early part of 1983 Cage starred in Valley Girl, a much meatier and more memorable part. Despite being quite successful Valley Girl was a “smaller” film (more on that next week) in comparison to Rumble Fish.

Essentially Rumble Fish was Cage’s first “big” movie and his introduction to “Hollywood.” This was no normal introduction though. This was the Coppola introduction.

By 1983 Francis Ford Coppola’s legacy was well cemented. Having been a prominent member in the New Hollywood movement from twenty years prior Coppola had a long history of success with critics and audiences alike. His mantled was already over crowded with awards, including multiple Oscars, and he had a number of box office hits under his belt including 1972’s highest grossest film, The Godfather.

But let’s be honest, Coppola was never really a mainstream guy. With Rumble Fish he decided to stray from the formula that resulted in all that success and make something more personal and well, a little weird. The film doesn’t focus as much on a coherent story as it does on interesting visuals. In a decade dominated by vivid colors Coppola decided to strip that all away and make a movie in black & white. This is like going to a concert expecting your standard rock show only to have your ears assaulted with offbeat jazz that no one really understands. As a result people were kind of dumbfounded.

In his review for Time Richard Corliss called the film a “professional suicide note to the movie industry” and stated it was “self-indulgent.” In the New York Times Janet Maslin wrote that simply making Rumble Fish was “a sign of how very paradoxical, even aimless, Mr. Coppola’s work has become.”

Even the more positive reviews made it a point to mention just how out there the movie is. Roger Ebert stated the film “was offbeat, daring, and utterly original. Who but Coppola could make this film? And, of course, who but Coppola would want to?” Jay Scott, who also enjoyed the movie, wrote that Coppola “may have the commercial sense of a newt, but he has the heart of a revolutionary, and the talent of a great artist.”

The consensus these days is that Rumble Fish is a beautiful piece of experimental filmmaking.

So what do these comments about Rumble Fish, and more specifically Coppola as an artist, have to do with Nicolas Cage? I think they serve as a perfect parallel for the career Cage has built since his beginnings in the early 80’s.

Cage has had his fair share of critical acclaim over the years. In 1996 he won an Oscar for his role in Leaving Las Vegas and he was nominated a second time in 2003 for his role in Adaptation. At the box office Cage has had even more success. Younger readers may not be aware of this but Cage was a big box office draw throughout the mid-90’s and into the early 2000’s. Even as recently has 2007 Cage has had a film, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, finish in the top 10 for the year at the box office. All told Cage is the 53rd highest grossing actor of all time according to Box Office Mojo.

Even with the success it’s always been clear that Cage isn’t exactly mainstream. To say he marches to the beat of his own drum would be an understatement. A more accurate way to describe Cage would be to say he trots to the rhythm of a musical genre that only he understands. He’s an unique talent the likes we’ve never seen before. He’s basically the closest thing we have to a martian.

Cage has never let others dictate what he does. He’s never been one to do something because people like it and he’s never once hesitated to not do something because people hate it. As long as he finds a role interesting, he’ll do it.

In the mid-90’s Cage had developed a formula of box office success with action movies like The Rock and Face/Off. Both those films are a bit off kilter and have plenty of strange Cage elements but they’re relatively safe. Cage could have easily continued to churn out films just like those two but instead he chose to mix in films like Bringing Out the Dead and Adaptation.

I’m sure this desire to make odd choices in the name of art is something that Cage has had his entire life. I assume that’s a trait that’s very prominent in the Coppola bloodline. But perhaps Cage learned something from his first experience working with Uncle Frank. Maybe Cage noticed how Coppola was willing to depart from a brand that had been successful to do something he truly wanted to do. Maybe, just maybe Rumble Fish is responsible for molding Cage into the actor he is today.

*Fast Times at Ridgemont High is fine but Cage is merely an extra. Had that role been played by an actor that didn’t go on to have a successful career we likely wouldn’t remember it at all.

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Chris Coffel is a contributor at Film School Rejects. He’s a connoisseur of Christmas horror, a Nic Cage fanatic, and bad at Rocket League. He can be found on Twitter here: @Chris_Coffel. (He/Him)