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Friday, June 5, 2009

'The Wrestler'

Rourke back with a bang — it hurts

Darren Aronofsky, with three out-there arthouse films to his credit, hardly seemed the ideal candidate to helm a grittily realistic movie on that most lumpen of sports, pro wrestling. But there you have it: Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" tackles an aging pro wrestler — played by 1980s star Mickey Rourke, in a beyond-all-expectations comeback performance — who fights on stoically, no longer for money, fame, or groupies, but just for a small piece of dignity in a life filled with let-downs.

The Wrestler Rating: (5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
The Wrestler
What a champ: Mickey Rourke is ready to rock in "The Wrestler."

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Running time: 109 minutes
Language: English
Opens June 13, 2009
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Gone are the trippy tropes of earlier Aronofsky films, replaced by a dingy, minimum-wage authenticity that seems to have seeped out of "Monster" or "Boys Don't Cry." Nevertheless, "The Wrestler" is still very much an Aronofsky film: where his earlier films had heroes who sought to alter their reality through esoteric practices — the Kabbalah and mystical numerology in "Pi" (1997), the drug highs of "Requiem For A Dream" (2000), and the secret of eternal life in "The Fountain" (2006) — the protagonist of the "The Wrestler," Randy "The Ram" Robinson, does so in a more prosaic way, seeking a refuge from reality in his larger-than-life ring persona. It's an escape whose price is as high as any addictive drug. (And, actually, shooting up a bagful of performance enhancers is part of the deal.)

We first meet The Ram backstage, after a fight, hunched over in a chair, blood running down his face; we don't have to see the fight to tell how grueling it was. (Though we'll see plenty later.) The Ram gets paid, just a few bills, and as he leaves we see the ring, which looks like it was set in a high-school gym. Ram gets home, sore and bloody, only to find he's been locked out of his trailer for missing the rent. After spending the night in his van, the next day he's off hauling boxes at a warehouse to earn some cash, enduring the taunts of his portly manager with a weak smile. You can see why the guy still lives for the ring, despite the physical toll it's taking on him.

Cut to the next weekend and Randy's fighting a beefy wrestler half his age; Aronofsky brings the camera in so close that every fall will send shudders down your spine. The Ram even cuts himself surreptitiously, to "juice" for the punters; though pro wrestling is often viewed as fake contest, "The Wrestler" shows how much real pain is involved in putting on the show. A scene with a staple-gun wielding baddie called Necrobutcher (an actual wrestler) will leave you literally wincing and twitching; the baying crowds will leave you convinced that ours is a decadent age.

If "Iron Man," with another comeback star, Robert Downey Jr., was about being virile and potent in your 40s, then "The Wrestler" is about running out of steam. Randy's health is giving out, he's got a failed marriage behind him, and the closest thing he's got to a relationship is in the lap-dance booth with stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). Like Randy, she's at an age where she won't be pole-dancing much longer, but unlike him, she can imagine a future without her stage persona. For her, it's an act she does to make a living; for him, the act is what makes life worth living.

A near fatal bout makes The Ram rethink his ways. He tries to get in contact with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), implores Cassidy for a "real" relationship, and vows to stop wrestling and get a real job. Like so many recovering addicts, though, the relapse is only a matter of time. "The Wrestler" is a film about screwing up and getting second chances you don't deserve, and maybe screwing them up too. Or not.

That's something Mickey Rourke knows a thing or two about: He gave up acting in 1991, after hits such as "Angel Heart" and "Nine and a Half Weeks," to embark on a boxing career, a move widely viewed in Hollywood as insane. After that sojourn, and the damage done to his pretty-boy face, Rourke was never able to revive his career, with small parts in "Spun" or "Sin City" being the best he could manage. His life arc certainly intersects with his character's, and you can feel that in every frame.

Rourke knows the physical cost of ring combat, and he keeps it real here. He also brings the low-key charm that he was once known for, but — refreshingly — isn't afraid to appear vulnerable or even a bit sad. Scenes where he's shaving his armpits or getting his long mane permed (to look good in the ring) display a touching vanity to a guy who ends up looking like human hamburger after a fight. Little touches, like his delicate reading glasses or the hairnet he wears at a supermarket job, allow him to flash some self-deprecating humor and humility. Then there's the scene he has with Evan Rachel Wood on the New Jersey boardwalk where he implores his daughter to let him back into her life; scene of the year, period. Tears will flow.

In one sense, "The Wrestler" is a tragedy, since it seems only a matter of time until The Ram declines and falls, but — unlike the relentlessly grim "Requiem" — Aronofsky finds something beautiful, glorious even, in his refusal to accept the demands of reality.

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