It’s good to have Mickey Rourke back.
The best actor whose career was born in the 80s seemed lost to us. By the close of that decade, he had amassed a stellar resume which promised his ascension into the 1990s as the most vital leading man of his generation, and then he was gone, vanished from prominence, vanquished by his demons.
His resume in the 1980s has only grown in stature since. In the wondrous “Diner” and evocative “Rumble Fish,” he was a man among boys. In “The Pope of Greenwich Village” he let Eric Roberts concoct fidgety affectations while he simmered with a succulent slow burn. The versatile Rourke could play Charles Bukowski and a lothario with equal credibility. And he went toe-to-toe with a prime De Niro in “Angel Heart” giving the devil as good as he got.
But even then he seemed like a throwback. Blessed with the tumescent presence of Robert Mitchum yet the fragile vulnerability of Montgomery Clift, Rourke was the quietest big presence on the silver screen. He was the New Romantic Brando.
Yet, despite this talent meshed with charisma, no actor of any significance became a non-entity for longer. It was only 10 years between “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “The Godfather” for Marlon Brando. And while it seemed that John Travolta was an outcast longer than he was, in those 14 years between “Urban Cowboy” and “Pulp Fiction,” he still persisted with boffo box-office numbers in the “Look Who’s Talking” flicks. When an actor generally enters the wilderness — say a Ryan O’Neal or Michael Keaton – typically its a self-imposed retirement or the lack of acting pedigree catching up to them.
Three years ago, Rourke reappeared in “Sin City” as Marv, the gentle humungous, and while he exuded his signature pathos, Marv was a green screened creation in an ensemble piece. But here, as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, a former wrestling superstar toiling in a northeastern minor-league circuit, it’s Mickey in flesh and blood. Randy pines for his glory days in the 1980s when arenas (both wrestling and rock) were his temple. Now, he performs (with good grace) to dozens perched in rec center folding chairs in matches he crams around his schedule hoisting goods at a local supermarket.
It’s astonishing to see Rourke in his leotard sporting a ripped upper body with a hulking chest, guns protruding from his shoulders and, most disconcertingly, a face brutalized by boxing, by Botox, or maybe almost two decades of bad choices. However, despite his massive body, or perhaps because of it, one is drawn to his hands which, like his voice — that unmistakable husky whisper — are strong but capped with fingernails hearty and delicate, like finely sliced almond.
Rourke exudes a quiet, understated strength early in the film, especially in the genuine camaraderie he shares with his younger, fellow wrestlers. The backstage scenes are casual, heartfelt, and touching as they express respect and reverence for the “Ram,” which he accepts with gracious reluctance
“The Wrestler” is an imperfect film as it charts Randy’s hopes for a comeback. Marisa Tomei is a top notch actress, and she excels at what she does in this movie, but the part of Cassidy, a stripper who Randy befriends, feels incomplete. Similarly, Randy’s attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter, played defiantly by Evan Rachel Wood, seem slung together. And the characterization presented of Todd Barry’s harrying boss is a tad too dickish.
But perhaps what most blights “The Wrestler” is what makes it most riveting. The film is overpowered by Mickey Rourke’s presence. It’s hard to watch the movie and not constantly gawk at his performance. It’s head-shakingly amazing to realize that Rourke was 55 during the filming. To give this feat some perspective, Brando was 47 when he returned to play the burnt-out, cynical Paul in “Last Tango in Paris.” This feeling of wonder isn’t just in the first few scenes; it permeates every shot. But if his performance puts the film in a stranglehold, perhaps this is to be expected from a movie so saturated in the irony of seeing an 80s wrestling superstar pining for a career resurrection played by an 80s icon who is delivering one.
This film was clearly built around Rourke and for this the credit must go to director Darren Aronofsky, who insisted, ultimately, that Rourke was the logical choice for the role. The widely circulated story states that Aronofsky first offered the part to Nicolas Cage but had second thoughts almost immediately so that we were spared the absurdity of Cage, who one feels currently doesn’t have either the girth or the chops to handle a stripped-bare part like “The Ram.” Why expose an audience to a spandexed, steel Caged-match when you have a national treasure like Rourke?
Aronofsky shows admirable versatility by shooting “The Wrestler” in a gritty, unadorned style so unlike his last effort, “The Fountain,” an ornate, existential exercise replete with Hugh Jackman as a bark eating monk. It was overstuffed with video techniques, celestial imagery and a cluttered metaphysical vibe. He presents this film with a hand-held intimacy and a washed-out color palette, the visual style matching a main performance savagely raw and real. In a movie shorn of the abstract, perhaps it’s fitting that when Randy, enjoying a beer in a tavern with Cassidy, hears a favorite song, it instantly creases his battered face with a knowing grin as the 80s classic sums up not only the hope of “The Ram” but the rebirth of Rourke.
Round and round
With love we’ll find a way just give it time, time, time, time
Round and Round
What comes around goes around
I’ll tell you why, why, why, why