In 1960’s Oklahoma the leather and denim-clad Greasers and the richer, preppy Soc’s (pronounced “So-shers”) are constantly and at times literally at each others throats. As their confrontations escalate, a tragic turn of events forces Greasers Johnny (Ralph Macchio) and Ponyboy (C. Thomas Howell) to flee the town and hide out, until further tragedy brings them back to town for a bitter-sweet reunion with family and friends.
Like a proto-Brat Pack movie (Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Macchio, Howell, Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon and Patrick Swayze all appear), The Outsiders comes loaded with expectation and baggage and it is a load it struggles to bear up under. Director Francis Ford Coppola was white hot off the back of an unprecedentedly successful decade that had given the world two Godfathers, one Conversation and an Apocalypse, working from a book that was apparently widely read and much beloved by those at Junior High and High School in the US.
The overall tale is in many ways familiar and typical, notwithstanding some unusual plot developments. Macchio’s Johnny is from a home where his parents are always fighting and arguing, Howell’s Ponyboy lives with his two older brothers (Lowe and Swayze) following the death of their parents, always anxious that child services will come to take him away if he gets into trouble. Dillon’s Dallas is the most worldly and rebellious of the gang, having got out early from a short stretch in prison.
There is an impressive evocation of time and space, with the drive-in cinema that author S.E.Hinton frequented as a teenager and used in the book being employed in one scene. The houses and parks all have a properly authentic and lived-in feel to them and all of the actors look the part, but somehow the film does not coalesce as a whole. Part of the problem is that the film has not aged well, with the more affected acting performances sticking out like a sore thumb and some of the dialogue is delivered as if it were far more profound than it really is. That is not to dismiss the film, its performances or script as being wholly without merit. Dillon acquits himself well and Howell conveys the more complex and subtle emotional arcs convincingly and a few choice lines do stay with you, but the film does not resonate in the same way as, for example, Stand By Me, perhaps because by being more specific and particular in its plot points it becomes more difficult to place yourself in the principals’ shoes.
There is a welcome realism and feasibility about the manner in which the story unfolds, but in this relatively new (first assembled for the 2003 DVD release) extended cut the pace does drag somewhat and the whole film feels too long by a good twenty minutes. Coppola maintains that the additions from the 90-minute theatrical release were necessary to restore the film to something more closely resembling the book, but that seems to make the mistake of treating the hallowed text as sacrosanct, rather than employing judicious pruning and editing to deliver a satisfying film instead of a rigidly adherent adaptation. Not a bad film by any means, but a disappointing and ultimately unsatisfying one. You can get it here now to rent or buy.
Extras: Although mostly carried over from the 2003 Special Edition, this is a bumper pack nonetheless:-
- Introduction and Audio Commentary by Coppola – interesting and affectionate for a film he clearly cherishes, with a helpful dissection of the changes brought in for the extended cut
- Cast commentary – Macchio, Swayze, Howell, Diane Lane, Dillon and Lowe all chip in. To be honest, with no screen-in-screen version, it becomes a little difficult to work out who is saying what and with Dillon and Lowe having recorded theirs separately there is some overlapping. It is a laudable editing job, but there is relatively little new insight and it feels a little crowded.
- Staying Gold – a retrospective making-of – interesting and informative
- Author S.E.Hinton on location in Tulsa – Hinton shares her recollections of the area she grew up in and on which she based the book
- Casting documentary – pretty interesting and insightful look at the casting process, who might have been involved but didn’t make the cut (Helen Slater, Dennis Quaid, Kate Capshaw etc) and how much time Coppola took to get the right combination of actors
- Seven cast members read from the book – unnecessary padding for an already perfectly adequate special features set
- NBC news feature from 1983 – grainy and dated but interesting
- Deleted / Extended Scenes and Trailer