Review: 'The Wrestler'

It's a match we've seen before. But Mickey Rourke delivers a powerful performance.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Mickey Rourke is shown in a scene from, The Wrestler. Rourke was nominated for a Golden Globe award for best actor in a motion picture drama on Thursday, Dec. 11, 2008.
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In "The Wrestler," Mickey Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, an over-the-hill grappler who has been locked out of his trailer home for nonpayment. To earn money he lugs cartons in a warehouse. Friendless, estranged from his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), he frequents the local "gentlemen's club," where an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei), eyeing his scars, tells him he ought to see "The Passion of the Christ." Symbolism alert! The Ram's cuts are his stigmata. Can his resurrection be very far behind?

"The Wrestler" is a heavy dose of corn syrup. Director Darren Aronofsky's herky-jerky, hand-held camera stylistics have a veneer of verity, but don't be fooled. This pastiche, written by Robert Siegel, is purest Hollywood. If you've never seen, for starters, the "Rocky" movies or "Requiem for a Heavyweight" or "Somebody Up There Likes Me" or "Raging Bull," you might be forgiven in thinking "The Wrestler" was an original. But for anyone with a memory for movies going back more than a decade, it's not so much a blast from the past as a whimper from the vault. You've seen it all before – and better.

Aronofsky doesn't introduce the Ram to us right away, at least not headfirst. As in "The Elephant Man," the camera tracks behind him for a while until his face is revealed. And what a face. With his bruised, mashed mug, Rourke looks as if he's lived a life, which may explain why the enthusiasts for this movie are making little distinction between the actor and the role. Rourke once quit the movies to become a boxer and has been out of the acting limelight for some time now. In "The Wrestler," the Ram stages a 20th-anniversary rematch with a celebrated opponent and, similarly, Rourke's reentry into leading-man roles is being greeted as his very own personal comeback.

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I would much rather have seen a movie about the devastations of the real Mickey Rourke. By comparison, the Ram seems like a stand-in – a screenwriter's pseudo-hard-boiled concoction. Don't let the film's scruffy working-class trappings fool you. The movie has highfalutin pretensions, starting with its title. It is not, you will notice, "A Wrestler," but "The Wrestler," for all that important mythic effect. The Ram bears the weight of all our coulda-been-a-contenda dreams. He takes the hit for all us dreamers too afraid to get into the ring of life.

The steroid-pumped Ram still has the vestiges of a fine physique, though, and a long leonine mane of dyed blond hair. His wrestling matches are choreographed but draw real blood. The fights may be fake but the battles are real.

The Ram's mumbly speech is supposed to be more "authentic" than the articulateness of people unschooled in hard knocks. The filmmakers' stumblebum-as-common-man routine is vintage Depression-era trope. Stallone was the first to re-up it for "Rocky." Given the current state of our economy, it's not surprising that it would rear its battered head again. The stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold trope is also an old standby. So is the scene with the Ram and his daughter wandering a deserted seaside boardwalk in Jersey.

Rourke may have had a blasted career in the wake of his stupendous early work in films such as "Diner" and "Body Heat," but he's often been marvelous even in small roles. Back in 2001, as the distraught father of a murdered girl in "The Pledge," he had only one scene, but he cut through the proceedings like an acetylene torch. He's powerful in "The Wrestler," too, but he's pushing his ravaged and ruinous look, and there's something unseemly about that. I'll stand up and cheer when Rourke plays Henry Higgins in a remake of "My Fair Lady." Grade: B-. (Rated R for violence, sexuality/nudity, language, and some drug use.)

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