'The Wrestler' Wins Big

Mickey Rourke's brilliant, if not so triumphant, return.

By Steve Burgess 9 Jan 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about film for The Tyee every other Friday -- unless he hits the road, which he is about to do, in which case he files dispatches from far-flung locales, which he is about to do.

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Rourke's on the right (the wet cat food look).

I once disliked Mickey Rourke. Something about him I found hard to watch -- he was one of those actors who, for better or worse, had so much screen presence that you were always aware of whom you were watching. For me, it started to turn around when I saw the overlooked 1989 Walter Hill movie Johnny Handsome. More recently, the otherwise rather dislikable 2005 comic-book epic Sin City was worth seeing just for Rourke. He was unrecognizable from his early Motorcycle Boy days, but perhaps that was just the comic book-style graphics, right?

Not right. Mickey Rourke has been radically reshaped over the years, by years which included not just the usual Hollywood train wrecks but also a failed boxing career. Writer Cintra Wilson once described seeing Rourke in a restaurant -- his head, she wrote, "looked like it had been sculpted out of wet cat food."

Turns out Mick was just in training. He was prepping for his sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated role in Darren Aronofsky's new film, The Wrestler. Sure, Robert De Niro gained 70 pounds for Raging Bull. De Niro was an amateur-theatrical-club pansy. Mickey Rourke spent a decade or so turning himself into a walking tower of mulch so he could walk into the role of a lifetime. And he nails it.

Legions of fans

The Wrestler is the story of over-the-hill ring star Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Rourke). He has his own action figure. Said doll has movable action limbs, but unfortunately they are unable to remove the new locks from Randy's trailer door. For that you need cash, which action figures are chronically short on. The Ram's salad days are gone, along with his knees.

But the Ram is still at it, albeit for smaller crowds in Legion Halls, and meager paydays. Most of his money goes for steroids and other pharmaceuticals. Some of the rest goes for lap dances from his favourite girl, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei in another excellent performance). There's also a daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) who hates him. Why? "Because you're a fuck-up," she helpfully explains. True dat.

He's also a pussycat -- a toothless old tiger -- whose real name seems to be Robin, a horrifying truth revealed when circumstances force him to wear a name tag and work a deli counter. Those circumstances include a heart attack. It comes after a wrestling match that involves barb wire, broken glass and a staple gun. With real staples.

Not your parents' Rocky

Cassidy has a real name too -- Pam. Like Randy/Robin, Cassidy/Pam is an old campaigner who isn't earning like she once did. She's reluctant, but the beat-up old pussycat exerts a pull on her, even as the faded glory of the ring tugs at him. We'll see who wins that match.

Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) is offering up a requiem for an old warrior. There's nothing particularly fresh about this movie. In fact, with a different treatment The Wrestler could have been downright hokey -- directed by and starring Sylvester Stallone, perhaps. As it is, the conclusion veers toward melodramatic cliché. But Aronofsky's gritty, low-key style and the gently humorous script by Robert Siegel lift the whole thing up.

And most of all, there's Mickey Rourke. The Wrestler wasn't the role he was born to play -- it was the role he pounded himself into.

"The '90s sucked," Randy "The Ram" tells Pam. But the audience knows that's Rourke talking. Welcome to the 21st century, Mick. If you stay on your feet, it should work out better for you.

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