By now, if you pay attention to the movies at all, you know about Mickey Rourke's star-remaking turn in "The Wrestler." Rourke plays a man who years before was one of the biggest stars around who now hustles his way onto local weekend cards in middle-school gymnasiums, clinging desperately to the last shreds of fame left over from "the good old days."
Rourke's performance is indeed worth the price of admission, showing, in the best wrestling tradition, an amped-up version of his own story, where unfulfilled promise and a few memorable performances earned Rourke himself enough fame that his fall was almost too devastating to recover from.
But for my money the film's greatest achievement lies with director Darren Aronofsky for his sensitive, realistic portrayal of the wrestling business.
Before "The Wrestler," the cinematic presence of professional wrestling, that most infamous of fake sports, meant comedy, poking fun at something so obviously, inherently ridiculous that teasing it is almost pointless. Movies about wrestling, from Jack Black's "Nacho Libre" to the 80s flick "Body Slam," featured the cartoon version of wrestling, which would be akin to, say, trying to make a Bugs Bunny cartoon or a Three Stooges film seem less realistic. Heck, even when a wrestling company made a movie, it was a slapsticky mess (see 2000's "Ready to Rumble," which was made with the full participation of World Championship Wrestling).
But Aronofsky did his homework, spoke with and ultimately employed real professional wrestlers, and learned the often tragic stories of former superstars, men who were adored by millions, who ended up broke, broken and bitter old men.
But the film does employ cliche in doses, giving Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson a few of filmdom's favorite burdens: the daughter that rejects him; the stripper with the heart of gold who sticks by his side; his heart attack, defying the odds against him; and his one last shot at redemption.
But the actors involved, particularly a brilliant Marisa Tomei, rise above those stereotypes. Watch Tomei's Cassidy/Pam early on; she's using Randy, to boost a slow working night when he stops inn and to make herself feel better about herself.
Evan Rachel Wood gives a decent enough performance in a relatively small role as Randy's estranged daughter who is bitter at his chronic absenteeism. She relies too much on post-adolescent angst, but still acquits herself well.
But the story is ultimately Rourke's, and the writing helps at times. Two of the film's best moments reveals Randy's real name, and an encounter with a busty young blonde who meets Randy at a bar and takes an opportunity to make real a girlhood fantasy. When Randy wakes up at her place the next morning, he finds she also has a thing for firemen.
The DVD extras are frankly disappointing, with only a brief featurette on Rourke's wrestling scenes, and a music video for Bruce Springsteen's track of the title song. The Blu Ray adds a "Wrestler's Roundtable" segment featuring pro wrestling legends and their thoughts on the film. Rourke's training for "The Wrestler" is already somewhat legendary, and a more in-depth feature on his training regimen would have been fun (why not show him learning the ropes, so to speak?).
Still, if you missed this film in theaters, it's a worthwhile pickup, and a very good film whether you're a wrestling fan or just enjoy good movies.
Movie rating: 4 Yaps out of 5
DVD extras: 2 Yaps out of 5