Rourke resurrected in brutal, touching 'Wrestler'
If you expect a feel-good hero flick like "Rocky Balboa," or some Hulk Hogan-esqe bigger-than-life grappler action plot, you'll be sorely disappointed.
Instead, Mickey Rourke literally reinvents himself in "The Wrestler" as aging pro grappler Randy "The Ram" Robinson - with enough charm and surprising sensitivity to contend for the Best Actor Oscar.
Nobody could have played this role but Rourke, a real life tough guy who left acting to himself be a washed-up boxer. (Most certainly not Nic Cage, the original choice for the role.)
The movie isn't about pro wrestling or its seeming glamor at all, but about a man who can't overcome his own self-destructive nature, even if it means losing everyone he loves.
Once a headliner in Madison Square Garden, Ram is a down and out ex-star, broken down and alone, living out of his van, and playing to handfuls of people in little podunk gyms.
The film is brutal, showing the character cutting himself open to please the fans, being shot with a staple gun in "extreme" matches, injecting himself with steroids to try to prolong the only career he knows how to do. Rourke's puffy features no longer looking like the guy you knew in "Diner," "Barfly" "Bullet," "Nine 1/2 Weeks" or even teh campy favorite, "Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man," but there are still flashes where he just owns the screen. He certainly looks the part here, maybe half Greg "The Hammer" Valentine and half dyejob reality goof Bret Michaels, with a stumbly bit of Mick "Mankind" Foley for good measure. In fact, my one gripe is that he doesn't look washed up enough - he's in better shape than half the current wrestling heroes on TV.
It is the scenes away from the wrestling ring that really shine. The Ram is oddly endearing and charismatic, even funny - awkwardly romancing a middle-aged stripper (played nicely by Marisa Tomei), trying desperately to reach the daughter he abandoned years ago, easy comaraderie with fellow hopeless wrestler wannabes, and struggling with rude customers while working the deli counter to try to get by during retirement.
Forced out of the ring by a near-fatal heart attack, will Ram choose to salvage his relationships, or risk death for one final big match and the adulation of his fans?
It all sounds like the typical downtrodden jock movie, and in fact it may be the best of that genre since "Raging Bull," but Rourke melds actor and role so seamlessly that it becomes a quite extraordinary movie. It is VERY adult fare, be warned. It starts slow, but you can't help but be caught up. Into a world that appears hopeless and brutal, Mickey Rourke brings us a bad @#* character with a tender heart.
* Rated R. 105 minutes. Four stars out of five.