Rumble Fish ★★★★½

The older I get, the more I swing away from Coppola's New Hollywood string of canonical classics and the more I gravitate toward the freewheeling experiments of his work in the '80s and beyond. Rumble Fish is as much of a sensory experience and technical show-off as One from the Heart, the impressionistic flip-side to the more standard coming-of-age tale of The Outsiders. Its plot is not so much thin as vaporous, forever taking the shimmering, ectoplasmic shape of something solid before a slight breeze disrupts the form. It is a film carved out of various images and sounds of youth, blending '50s greasers with contemporary fashion, expressionistic renditions of West Side Story gang fights with a soundtrack heavy on zydeco and basement funk.

Coppola shoots streets with slick filth and sewer fog, back alleys with dread, and characters with silent-film visual poetry. Peep the way that black levels plunge when the film's hateful cop is on screen, or how Rusty James is framed late in the movie against rear-projected clouds floating by in such a way that he looks like a figure in a Soviet movie about the rewards of collective farming. Then there's Rourke, who coalesces into this film as if out of the concentrate of James Dean and Brando. He exudes sensitivity and strength, the eerie calm of a man preternaturally capable of receiving the blind devotion of others and of someone who has decided the exact terms of their death. Coppola films in moods, and the ones on display here are of longing and confusion and despair, and for all the gorgeous fish-eye shots and glinting lights, the most compelling shots are the ones that contrast Motorcycle Boy's aloof peace with Rusty James's collapsing cool and naked desire for kinship with his brother. Maybe Coppola's most haunting feature.