Tribute #3: The Outsiders (1983)


A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov

After the box office failures that were Apocalypse Now and One From the Heart, legendary director Francis Ford Coppola needed a hit on his hands. His refusal to sell-out and make a film that would ensure a success at the box office (like Godfather Part 3) and instead create an original genre pic, led him to buying the rights to the S.E. Hinton novel “The Outsiders”. The resulting film is a fast-paced, and star-studded little film that does not go through the motions, and keeps things interesting throughout. Coppola knew he wasn’t going to make the next The Godfather, and he seemingly doesn’t try to, as he refuses to regress to the style he used in The Godfather films. Here he is less deliberate and observant, instead only focusing on emotional interaction when different characters contemplate their next move against their opposing gang. Also, The Outsiders possesses a low amount of relevant dialogue, but a higher amount of action, compared to the films Coppola is known for.

At first glance, The Outsiders may seem like a coming-of-age film. It involves a group of teen characters that are involved in violent situations after all. But somehow, Coppola brushes aside any ‘loss of innocence’ theme that the book might have originally possessed and creates a film that focuses on showing the ugliness of gang violence. The message is still a good one, and a potent one that has not lost its effectiveness even after 20 plus years. The film tells the story of two different gangs, the Greasers (like the ones from Grease), and the Socials – a group of people with a much higher stature and therefore with a lot more power. What starts out as a harmless get-together between two couples turns into a gang war sparked by a horrible act committed by one of the Greasers.

While Coppola is guilty of making things too literal – something he will retain for the rest of his filmmaking career, it is almost a demonstration of bravery on his part. He wants this film to say what it should say and there aren’t many scenes or lines of dialogue that stray from his vision. That’s not to say that there aren’t any profound scenes in this film. At times the film even feels inspirational, especially in scenes when gang members contemplate the war they are in and its implications and outcomes that seem inevitably negative. Also Coppola’s tendency for realism magnifies the sense of depression and tragedy that surrounds the characters. Coppola has never been a fake, and The Outsiders is a true testament to that ideal.

The film’s cast is full of up-and-comers that later on became big stars. It is full of names that are instantly recognizable these days like Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, and Emilio Estevez. Even Diane Lane has a small supporting role. It is not a surprise then that the performances are great all around. The actors commit few ‘young actor’ mistakes, and most of them can be devoted to Rob Lowe anyway. Yet, one gets the feeling that the characters are one-dimensional version of real gang members. This restricts any of the actors to shine through, though Tom Cruise and Ralph Macchio still manage somehow.

The technical side of the film is the most interesting aspect for me. Of course this is to be expected when Coppola is behind the camera. Coppola tries to stylistically tie this movie in with Gone with the Wind, by softening the edges of scenes and making the film feel like it could actually have been made in the 30’s. But this shouldn’t be dismissed as a stylistic afterthought for Coppola, since the whole of The Outsiders purposefully feels like a tie-in to Gone with the Wind. The cinematography is exceptional, especially for an 80’s film. Cinematographer Stephen Burum increases the levels of coloring for each scene so the sunsets are redder, the hair is greasier, and Diane Lane’s smile is brighter. Also the film has a great score by Carmine Coppola (Francis Ford Coppola’s dad) which feels too epic for the film, but this is not really a negative – it’s absolutely tantalizing.

Overall I recommend you give this film a shot. It may take some getting-used-to, but it is a pleasure to watch and experience. Since The Outsiders, Francis Ford Coppola has seemingly lost his talent. It is something I am reluctant to say, but when people like Michael Mann are making better films then him, we know he’s just not the same. So The Outsiders also represents one of the last Coppola efforts that is truly worth seeing. The fact that is also an enjoyable, if hard-hitting film, is only icing on the cake.

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