Washed up fighters make great movie characters. Think of Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” speech in On the Waterfront, Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby and Stacy Keach, pissing blood in John Huston’s underrated Fat City. Add to their ranks Randy “The Ram” Robinson, played here by Mickey Rourke in the role that's justifiably attracting much talk of an Oscar.
Washed up fighters make great movie characters. Think of Robert De Niro as Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contender” speech in On the Waterfront, Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby and Stacy Keach, pissing blood in John Huston’s underrated Fat City. Add to their ranks Randy “The Ram” Robinson, played here by Mickey Rourke in the role that’s justifiably attracting much talk of an Oscar.
Rourke, more than most actors, knows about the ring. Anyone who lost track of him in the 1990s (and frankly you’re not missing much if you did) might not be surprised to learn he dedicated more time to the gym than he did to reading scripts. He went undefeated in seven professional bouts between 1991 and 1994, when he retired from boxing.
He kept on making movies, most of them trash, but occasionally found some of the old spark that made him such an exciting prospect in the early 80s, in films like Diner and Rumblefish. (He was terrific as Jan the Actress in Animal Factory, and of course as Marv in Sin City, but virtually unrecognizable in either.)
Maybe that’s why Darren Aronofsky makes us wait before we can see his face in The Wrestler. First of all we get glimpses of The Ram’s glory days, press clippings from the late 80s when he was in his prime. Then we see him from the back, sitting on a stool in the corner of a nursery class – like a dunce. He’s reduced to fighting in school gyms now. His hair is long and rinsed blonde, reaching down below his shoulders; his arms and chest are bodybuilder pumped… But the face, when we do see it, is bloated and battle-scarred, his skin waxy, his eyes in retreat. Rourke’s once beautifully chiseled features seem to have lost all their definition. (He’s 51, 52 on Tuesday.)
It’s enough to make you cry – or it would be, if Rourke didn’t imbue this guy with so much of the old charm and charisma. Randy is still fighting the good fight, still dreaming the dream despite everything that happens in a movie that’s structured as a long-delayed wake up call.
Aronofsky’s The Wrestler arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival just a couple of days after winning the Golden Lion at Venice, and two years after Aronofsky’s The Fountain was laughed off the screen at both events.
Maybe ridicule was good for the soul. There is something humble and back-to-basics about this flick – or maybe Arofonsky figured Dardenne brothers’ style naturalism was the path to critical redemption. Either way it pays off. The Ram learns the hard way that he can’t keep fighting forever (the movie casts a sympathetic light on sham wrestling bouts as just an extremely punishing branch of show business), but his options remain severely circumscribed in a country still hooked on its own fixation with youth and glory. (Not for nothing is Randy’s climactic bout a rematch with his old foe, The Ayatollah.)
A subplot about Randy trying to reconnect with his angry daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) tastes pretty stale, and it doesn’t take long to see which direction this is spiraling, but The Wrestler is a poignant slice of barroom blues transported to a whole other level by Mickey Rourke, the right actor in the right place at the right time. This could prove to be his indelible performance, the role of a lifetime you might say.
The Wrestler opens in the UK later in the year