The Wrestler is Mickey Rourke’s big comeback movie in which he plays Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, a professional wrestler of the kind so popular in the Eighties when they all had names like ‘The Ram’ or ‘Rock’ or ‘Bad Blood’ or ‘The Hulk’ or ‘Ayatollah’ and fought under the WWF banner, which is the World Wrestling Federation rather than the World Wildlife Fund. (It’s best not to get them mixed up: you don’t want to give money for pandas only to find that, instead, it’s gone to grown men with bad hair beating the shit out of each other and who aren’t cute at all.)
Anyway, The Wrestler is less a film, more a performance; a performance for which Rourke, earlier this week, won the Golden Globe for best actor. In accepting the award he did not, as far as I know, blub, gush, or even look radiant in a Dior fishtail dress that would later be given a big tick by Heat magazine — how awful to wear one of the frocks that gets a cross; I know I’d just die! Whatever, this film is that award-winning performance, which isn’t to say it’s a joy to watch. It isn’t. Instead, The Wrestler is harrowing, unflinching, painful and brutal. Being pathetically squeamish — I recently nicked myself while chopping a tomato and passed out on the kitchen floor — this isn’t a film I’d choose to see at the cinema in a million, zillion years. On the other hand, now I’ve seen it, I’m satisfied it was the right thing to do. It was worth it, as those L’Oreal people would say, if only they went to the movies more and stayed in to eliminate fine lines and wrinkles a little less.
Produced and directed by Darren Aronofsky, who made Requiem for a Dream, which was good, and The Fountain, which I failed to make head or tail of, this takes a grainy, verité approach as the camera often, quite literally, follows Randy around. In many scenes all we are seeing is the back of Randy’s head and his very bad hair; a long, bleached, Spinal Tap affair. I hope none of my panda money went on that. Randy, who is 20 years past his best, works in a supermarket during the week and wrestles at weekends. These are depressing matches: held in school gyms, scantily paid and attended by a few lingering, die hard fans. Although I’d always assumed that professional wrestling was little more than a series of vaudevillian, choreographed pratfalls, there is real pain here. Christ, yes. Real pain and barbed wire, razors, broken glass, even a staple gun. Flesh is punctured, gashed, scourged, stapled. It is totally and absolutely horrible to sit through , particularly for someone like me, who so dramatically failed the tomato test, but you can’t stop watching. That’s the thing about Mickey Rourke. True, he is no longer so easy on the eye, is actually rather hard on the eye, but he has the kind of physicality that has always commanded your full attention and nothing has changed there.
I confess: I used to have a bit of a pash on Mickey Rourke, as so many did. In his early, lamentably few good films (Rumble Fish, Body Heat, Barfly, Angel Heart), before he went off the rails, you just didn’t look at anyone else. He was like a James Dean, only dirtier; a James Dean gone to seed in a very sexy way. He seemed bad and that was good. But he famously quit Hollywood at 34 — although some might say Hollywood quit him first — for a boxing career that ultimately mashed him up. He’s had a lot of reconstructive surgery due to injuries and now his face is all but frozen. A limitation, you would think, but somehow he manages to say everything with just his eyes. A quick flick here, a welling up there. Somehow, he can even put across great pathos without ever slipping into sentimentality or self-pity, which would be ruinous.
There’s a soupçon of a narrative. After a heart attack, Randy is compelled to retire, but will he, can he? What else does he have? He tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and romances an ageing stripper (Marisa Tomei), the tart with a heart who may be able to save him, if he will allow it. ‘I’m just an old, broken piece of meat,’ he says at one point, and he is. This is a story of personal ruin and while it certainly does echo Mickey’s own life, it wouldn’t be fair to say he is playing himself. Sure, Rourke’s performance must have been informed by his own past, but that is different, as well as peculiarly powerful.
So, a film I wouldn’t choose to see but am glad to have seen, which leaves you where exactly? With a decision to make, I suppose, and some of your own wrestling to do. I’ve done mine for today, thanks.