Michael Metzger Examines The Outsiders

C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane, Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Leif Garrett, Tom Waits. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Aspect ratios: 2.35:1 (widescreen), 4:3 (full-frame). Dolby Digital 5.1. 91 minutes. 1983. Warner Bros. 11310. PG. $24.95.

Francis Ford Coppola has always had an eye for talent, and he never proved it more clearly than in the casting of The Outsiders. All of the film's major players became stars, for better or worse. C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane, and Emilio Estevez all made either their first movie or enjoyed their first featured role in The Outsiders. Tom Cruise, who has a small role, became a star the year this movie was released, 1983, with All the Right Moves and Risky Business. Even Nicolas Cage (Francis' nephew, then billed as "Nicolas Coppola") had an uncredited bit part in The Outsiders.

This was the first of two S.E. Hinton novels filmed by Coppola; the other was Rumble Fish, also released in '83, in which Coppola cast Lane, Matt Dillon, and Tom Waits, from The Outsiders.

The Outsiders is a story of teenagers, who call themselves greasers, growing up poor and rough in mid-'60s Oklahoma. It centers around the two sensitive souls among them, Ponyboy (Howell) and Johnny (Macchio), and their tough, older friend, Dallas (Dillon). After Johnny and Ponyboy are attacked by a group of middle-class boys, known as "socs" (for socialites), Johnny stabs one of them to death and he and Ponyboy go into hiding. While in hiding, Johnny is hurt badly when they rescue some kids from a burning building. Dallas is angry that they would risk their lives to help anyone—he's been urging them to be tough, like him, so that they can't be hurt. But when Johnny dies, Dallas' own emotions overwhelm him and he goes on a rampage that ends tragically.

Although there are strong moments in The Outsiders, the movie never fully connects its message about dispossessed youth, and how the youth within us all dies, to its audience. Some of it is embarrassingly trite, as when, after the fire, one of the socs says to Ponyboy, "I would have let those kids burn." Why not just have him say that he's a rich, unfeeling robot?

The best moments tend to revolve around Dillon, who's always good playing a tough guy. When he harasses and flirts with Cherry (Lane) at a drive-in movie, it's easy to remember the braying bullies in high school. But Dillon shows us that beneath their steely, intimidating exteriors were hearts as tender as anyone's. But even he occasionally lapses into overacting in this melodrama. Ralph Macchio also gives a fine performance—the best of his career—as a sweet, perceptive kid destined to leave life without having ever really lived it.

The story is told from the perspective of Howell's character, which dooms the film: he's as wooden as ever. The rest of the cast turn in performances that are harbingers of things to come: Swayze grits his teeth and takes off his shirt, Estevez is cheerfully unable to emote, and Rob Lowe smiles nicely, oblivious to the story.

Especially oblivious is Carmine Coppola, Francis' father, who scored the film. His overwrought orchestral swoopings and soarings are not what's called for in a movie intended to be a gritty examination of youth.

The film transfer is adequate, nothing more. The same can be said for the sound: nothing extraordinarily bad or good about it, except that Carmine's score is heard too clearly. The only extra on this DVD that you wouldn't get on a videotape is the theatrical trailer.

The Outsiders' greatest flaw is its florid failure to genuinely penetrate its characters and reveal who they are and what they're feeling. For a movie that's supposed to be about the pain of youth, that's fatal.