Youth alienation seems to be the obvious theme of this story about a high school kid named Rusty James (Matt Dillon), a big believer in rough, angry neighborhood gangs, and his long-lost older brother who unexpectedly returns. Perhaps at a more subtle level, the story's theme relates to the passage of time, in hours and years, as evidenced by the film's visuals of passing clouds and the presence of clocks in numerous scenes.
The story is thin. Rusty and his "gang" hang out, talk, walk around a lot, get angry, encounter various characters that appear in some scenes, then disappear. Ultimately, the glue that holds the plot together is the relationship between Rusty and his enigmatic, somewhat intellectual older brother, no longer a gang leader, who now functions as Rusty's mentor who over time, wised up. The story's era is unclear.
Casting is okay except for a disconnect between story location and character accents. The setting is supposed to be Oklahoma; yet, most characters, and especially Rusty James, speak with a thick New York accent. Director Francis Ford Coppola made the same mistake in "The Outsiders", using the same location and some of the same actors.
The film was shot in B&W, except for a couple of scenes where aquarium fish appear in red and blue. Overall photography is interesting in that visuals have a look and feel influenced strongly by German Expressionism, and include low-angle, noir lighting, heavy shadows, smoke and fog, and a few weird camera angles. Visuals in many scenes convey a gritty, dingy, urban look.
In the copy I watched, dialogue sounded muffled and hard to understand. Background sounds combined general urban clanking noise with the rhythmic based ticks of a clock and light jazz to create an interesting if perhaps contrived overall soundtrack.
An art film that was not well received by audiences when it came out, "Rumble Fish" would appeal to an art house audience but probably few others. I found the story talky and boring, though the B&W visuals were interesting in a stylized sort of way.