Rumble Fish is based on the S.E. Hinton novel of the same name. Like S.E. Hinton’s other novel The Outsiders, it also focuses on young men in gangs and the relationships they build at a pivotal time in their lives. Rusty James (Matt Dillon, who was also in The Outsiders) is a high-strung, pugnacious young man who thinks the world of his brother, the Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke). Should he be looking up to such a man, though?
While the Motorcycle Boy saves Rusty James’ life more than once, he isn’t the good influence that one would think an older brother should be. He doesn’t have any direction in his life; he comes and goes as he pleases and when he’s around he isn’t really all there mentally.
This relationship eventually fizzles out depressingly, teaching Rusty James how life is on the path he’s chosen.
Starting Rumble Fish, we meet Rusty James in a pool hall with his buddies. A guy rushes in to tell Rusty James that another gangster is looking for him and wants to fight. Rusty James promises to be there, despite his friends reminding him that the “Motorcycle Boy” said no more fighting. This is when we find out that the Motorcycle Boy is Rusty James older brother; he’s a mysterious loner that everyone in town has a deep respect for.
Rusty James shows up to the fight and generally dominates over his opponent. However, the Motorcycle Boy shows up, briefly distracting Rusty James and allowing his opponent to stab him. The Motorcycle Boy takes care of the opposing gang and takes Rusty James to safety.
While Rusty James is delighted to see the Motorcycle Boy again, there is a strange coldness between them. The Motorcycle Boy cares enough about his brother to take care of his injuries, but he is a million miles away in his head. The two brothers are in the same room, but only one of them is actually present.
Role Models and Fallen Idols
Rusty James worships the Motorcycle Boy. He thinks his older brother is amazing and tries his hardest to be exactly like him. The Motorcycle Boy doesn’t show any encouragement to his brother’s goals. He admonishes his brother for fighting and dreams of a day without gangs and fighting in their town.
Rusty James only sees what he wants to see for the most part. He doesn’t care about the Motorcycle Boy’s dreams of peace and would rather live a raucous lifestyle with fighting, sex, and cheap thrills. He is idolizing the life that the Motorcycle Boy used to lead (at least, we are led to believe that was the lifestyle he used to have) and not the one that the Motorcycle Boy now advocates.
Throughout Rumble Fish, Rusty James slowly begins to see the fall of the Motorcycle Boy. From a guy who could take on anything to a sad man with no future, the facade falls away. Rusty James realizes too late that the Motorcycle Boy isn’t invincible. He’s just like any other guy.
When we meet the Motorcycle Boy, he’s very quiet and soft-spoken; he’s almost the polar opposite of Rusty James. If the familial relationship had not already been established, it would have been difficult to tell that the two were brothers. The Motorcycle Boy only uses violence when he feels it necessary. He doesn’t get involved in many things and instead prefers to observe.
Rusty James is a hothead who will use violence at the drop of a hat. He likes to get involved in anything and everything he can, living a riotous life, indulging in as many of life’s guilty pleasures as he can. He tells anyone who cares to listen that he’s going to be just like the Motorcycle Boy when he gets a little older.
But Rusty James doesn’t realize how different the two boys really are. Rusty James sees the strength and reputation of the Motorcycle Boy and thinks he can gain that same respect by fighting his way to the top. This rambunctious attitude is why many of the gang members in town write him off as just a crazy kid. He doesn’t have the stoicism and measured confidence that the Motorcycle Boy has. They are completely different in how they are viewed by the world around them.
The Motorcycle Boy breaks down in the finale of Rumble Fish. He wants the “rumble fish” (Japanese fighting fish) in the pet store to be freed from their violent servitude the same way he wants the guys in his town to be free from the gangs and violence. In a brazen act of passion, the Motorcycle Boy steals the fish and attempts to take them to the nearest river. A local cop guns him down before he can get there.
Rusty James finally sees what the Motorcycle Boy has been talking about at this point. He sees the bigger picture and the peace that could await him if he chooses a different path in life. Pushing past the police, he grabs the fish and releases them into the river, where they calmly swim away, no longer shoved together in close quarters to fight. The Motorcycle Boy’s words break through to him and he decides to run away from the city he grew up in, just like the fish got away from their original environment.
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