Mickey Rourke, art imitating life

Evan Rachel Wood and Mickey Rourke as "The Wrestler" give resonant performances in a near-brilliant film.
Evan Rachel Wood and Mickey Rourke as "The Wrestler" give resonant performances in a near-brilliant film.
Posted: January 09, 2009

'I'm an old, broken-down piece of meat," Randy "The Ram" Robinson says in a moment of sober reflection, walking a Jersey Shore boardwalk in the company of the grown-up daughter he's hardly known.

And he's right. In The Wrestler, a rough and tumbling portrait of a washed-up pro wrestling star struggling to keep going 20 years past his prime, Randy's body - battered, bandaged, braced - doesn't look like it'll even get him home to the trailer park, never mind back into the ring.

Beautifully directed by Darren Aronofsky from a screenplay by Robert Siegel, The Wrestler, in case you haven't heard, stars one Mickey Rourke in the title role. And if this ragged but near-brilliant movie is about a guy trying to resurrect his career, so too is the performance at its heart. Wearing dyed blond tresses, his hulking frame crosshatched with tattoos and scars, his swollen mug virtually unrecognizable from the slick young hustler he played 25 years ago in The Pope of Greenwich Village, Rourke works his way into the soul of "The Ram" as if he has known this character his entire life. He probably has.

It's a haunting, scary, funny, sad portrayal from Rourke, an actor who, like "The Ram," blazed through the '80s and then faded from view. (And did a stint on the professional boxing circuit, too.) I'm not sure if Rourke had to resort to selling autographs and posing for snapshots for a few bucks a pop at fan meets. But he did the Hollywood equivalent with the movies he showed up in, the work he phoned in.

The Wrestler isn't perfect. Aronofsky, who launched his career with the black-and-white conundrum Pi, has returned to his indie roots after messing with the Big Ideas and not-quite-big-enough budget of The Fountain. Shot verite style on the streets of North Jersey (and, for the hard-core wrestling matches, in South Philly's New Alhambra Arena), the film certainly wears its gritty authenticity well. But there's a certain (perhaps unavoidable) familiarity about its scenario; Rourke's buddy Sylvester Stallone banged out comparable plotlines in a bunch of Rockys, and there's a whole subset of sports flicks that have deployed the aging underdog formula.

And for all of Marisa Tomei's fearlessness as Cassidy, a stripper who, against her better judgment, gets caught up in Randy's personal life, hers is the predictable and proverbial pole dancer-with-the-heart-of-gold role.

On the other hand, Evan Rachel Wood, as Stephanie Robinson - college-age and long cut off from her deadbeat dad - shows hurt, vulnerability and coiled-up rage as the daughter who wants her father to be there, and almost believes him when he says that he can. The scenes with Rourke and Wood are especially resonant.

It's no wonder Bruce Springsteen provided the title song for this hard-luck study of a worn-out dreamer: It's the same terrain - the dive bars, dollar stores, faded beach towns - that the Boss has visited and revisited for as many decades as a guy like Randy has been traversing it.

There are unforgettable moments in The Wrestler - which, it should be warned, does not flinch from displaying the brute, bloody ugliness and bone-rattling choreographed violence of professional wrestling. (Lots of the supporting players, in the ring and the locker room, are real-life wrestling stars.)

Aronofsky's film offers up a glimmer of hope that Randy can make a new life for himself when he takes a job at the deli counter of a local supermarket, joking with the customers, lobbing foodstuffs aloft like a quarterback going long.

Rourke makes you root for the guy - you want "The Ram" to get through it all, to emerge victorious. Even though you know - and so does he - that the odds are close to impossible.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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