Francis Ford Coppola has always had great respect for the books he has adapted to screen, almost always granting the authors a possessive title (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, etc) so it was probably little surprise that, in 2005, he added 22 minutes to the overall running time of The Outsiders to create ‘The Complete Novel’ cut. Now, this cut has been restored for 4K and Blu Ray, following a brief cinema re-release. I should note up front that this viewing of The Complete Novel was my first ever watch of The Outsiders, so I can’t speak to comparisons between the two cuts, though I would be interested in seeing the roughly 90-minute original, because this version definitely has, among other problems, some pacing issues.
The Outsiders is set in early 60’s small-town Oklahoma, where gangs of ‘Greasers’ and ‘Socs’ (from the poor and more affluent sides of the town respectively) are often getting in fights. The film largely lives with the greasers; a pseudo-familial group largely of teenage kids whose own parents are either dead, abusive or simply indifferent to them. With this extended version of the film clocking in at around two hours, the first is spent largely on building the characters among the Greasers, notably Ponyboy (C. Thomas Howell), the youngest of the group, being raised by his older brothers (Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze) after their parents’ death; Johnny (Ralph Macchio), the smallest and nerviest of the kids and Dallas (Matt Dillon), just out of Juvie and always looking for a fight. When a fight goes bad, Ponyboy and Johnny go and hide out together in an abandoned country church.
This first half of the film is brilliant. The plot feels loose and the characters are simply existing in their world; messing with each other, hitting on girls (including a young Diane Lane as Cherry) and trying to find something to do in a town that conjures some memories of The Last Picture Show; the only real landmarks being the diner and a couple of cinemas, one a drive-in. The performances here conjure a natural camaraderie between the guys even when, like when Dallas is aggressively flirting with Cherry and her friend, they’re annoyed by each other. The closeness between them, and the sense of surrogate family, comes through strongly.
This only becomes more powerful when we see a deeper connection, and deeper loyalty, between Ponyboy and Johnny when they are hiding out together. It’s perhaps in this sequence that the film looks its best, with DP Stephen H. Burum adding some old Hollywood glow to a scene of the boys outside watching the sunset. The photography is great throughout though, Burum and Coppola find a middle ground behind nostalgia and grit when depicting the town.
Unfortunately, the film can’t keep this standard up once the idyll of Ponyboy and Johnny’s hideout comes crashing down. Returning to the town, the screenplay lurches further into melodrama with each passing scene and the cast can’t bend their previously grounded performances to fit (except perhaps for a pre teeth straightening Tom Cruise, whose energy is never very grounded). Matt Dillon especially seems to struggle with the slightly overripe material he’s asked to handle in the last half hour. Apparently, the film’s score and soundtrack were significantly reworked for this version, and that’s another reason I’d like to see the original, because not only do certain choices seem an odd fit, but the music is often too high in the mix for my liking.
There is plenty to take away from The Outsiders. It’s a wonder that C. Thomas Howell didn’t become a bigger name; he’s easily the standout here; true, he has the most consistently written part, but Ponyboy is our point of identification here, and we’re with him all the way thanks to Howell. The first half alone is good enough to recommend the film. It’s fascinating to catch this many people who would go on to be such big names at such an early stage of their careers. None of them is quite the finished article here, but as rough as it is around the edges, The Outsiders still gives all of them moments that shine out as a great showcase and demonstrate why they had enduring careers.