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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 22.73%
Average: 12.12%
Pretty Bad: 3.03%
Total Crap: 6.06%

5 reviews, 36 user ratings

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Wrestler, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Requiem For A Heavyweight"
5 stars

When Mickey Rourke first burst onto the scene in the early 1980s with his scene-stealing supporting turn as the arsonist in “Body Heat” (having previously made small appearances in such interesting films as “1941,” “Heaven’s Gate” and the underrated slasher movie “Fade to Black”), many observers made the inevitable comparisons to Marlon Brando, citing his smoldering good looks, palpable on-screen charisma and evident acting chops, and suggested that he was on track to become one of the biggest and most intriguing movie stars of the decade to come. While he did go on to contribute any number of mesmerizing performances in films such as “Diner,” “Rumble Fish,” “The Pope of Greenwich Village,” “Year of the Dragon” “9 ½ Weeks,” “Angel Heart” and “Barfly,” audiences failed to respond to them and his lack of any significant box-office successes, combined with his bad-boy reputation, caused his career to begin to hit the skids and by the beginning of the Nineties, he was appearing in nonsensical paycheck movies like “Wild Orchid” and “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man.” (That said, I do want to go on the record as saying that “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man” is a hugely entertaining blast of B-movie trash from start to finish and that every man, woman and child should watch it at least once.) Increasingly disenchanted with an industry that was growing increasingly disenchanted with him, Rourke made the bizarre decision to largely walk away from Hollywood in order to pursue a career as an amateur boxer, a move that did nothing for him other than reduce the formerly beautiful face into a virtual pulp. When he did step foot in front of the cameras during the decade, the films, with a couple of rare exceptions (he turned in strong supporting turns in Vincent Gallo’s “Buffalo 66” and Francis Coppola’s “John Grisham’s The Rainmaker,” he did so in front of movies that either went directly to video (too many to mention) or movies that should have gone directly to video if there was any mercy in the world (such as his turn as a super-villain battling the dynamic duo of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman in “Double Team”).

By the end of the decade, even those parts began to dry up and it seemed as if the only people who were now willing to hire him were people who were either friends of his or fans of his earlier work. Luckily for him, there turned out to be plenty of both and, even better, they gave him material that he could actually do something with--he had a heartbreaking scene as a grieving parent in Sean Penn’s “The Pledge,” he had a hilarious scene in “Masked and Anonymous” in which he went head-to-head with no less an icon than Bob Dylan and he brought moments of real life an authenticity in his appearances in such films as “Spun,” “Man on Fire” and “Domino.” Finally, in 2005, he got the comeback role that he long deserved when Robert Rodriguez, with whom he had worked on “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” hired him to play Marv, the psychotic killer with a heart of gold, in his adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel series “Sin City.” Although the film was an attempt to create something akin to a live-action comic book, there was nothing cartoonish about Rourke’s performance--it was the most soulful bit of acting of his entire career and served as a notice to the industry that while his looks may have taken a battering over the years, the talent and charisma had hardly diminished at all since his heyday in the 1980s. Alas, despite all the comeback talk that accompanied the release of the film, the only things that Rourke followed it up with were a couple of long-delayed films that still remain unreleased (“Killshot” and “The Informers”) and the silly kid spy film “Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker” and for a while, it looked as if his best shot at making a comeback had slipped through his fingers. And yet, in conclusive proof that a.) there is a God and b.) she is a Mickey Rourke fan, he has finally returned to the screen in a big way with the lead role in “The Wrestler” and not only is it one of the best movies of the year, Rourke’s work is both the best performance seen by an actor in 2008 and tops even his “Sin City” turn as the very best thing he has done to date.

In the film, Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a wrestler was a star on the circuit in the Eighties whose career peaked with a now-legendary match in which he defeated the loathsome Ayatollah. Now, twenty years down the line from that triumph, Randy is a battered shell of his former self who still gets into the ring every weekend to compete in front of increasingly tiny crowds in small auditoriums and even the occasional high-school gymnasium. As we quickly see, he isn’t still taking all this punishment for the money--between the dwindling gate receipts and forking over money for the steroids that help him maintain his physique, he still barely has enough money to maintain his shabby trailer park existence and is forced to supplement his income by loading boxes at the local grocery store during the week--but because he still gets a rush from the crowds (“You hear the roar of the crowd and you pull through“), whose adoration helps him temporarily forget the tattered state of his own deeply estranged relationship with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). From a professional standpoint, things begin looking up for him at last when a promoter approaches him with the idea of staging a 20th anniversary rematch of his famed bout with the Ayatollah that will earn him a decent payday for the first time in a long while. Ironically, it is at this very point that Randy’s body finally betrays him when, after another meaningless match in a dead-end locale, he collapses in a lonely locker room from a massive heart attack. Once he recovers, he is ready to step back in the ring but gets his first inkling that it may not be that easy when he tells his doctor that he works as a professional wrestler and the doctor replies “That’s not a good idea.” In fact, the doctor explains, his health is so precarious that if he tries fighting again, there is a very good chance that he will die.

Thanks to that prognosis, Randy retires from the ring and tries to rejoin the straight world by getting a job, rebuilding his busted relationship with his daughter and forging a new one with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a friendly exotic dancer from the local strip club. Of the three, the job turns out to be the easiest by far--he gets promoted at the grocery store to working at the deli counter and after some initial trepidation, he discovers to his delight that not only is it something that he is able to do, it allows him to interact with the customers in much the same way that he used to do with his fans. Stephanie is a harder nut to crack, of course, but the two eventually begin to reconnect after a visit to an abandoned boardwalk. With Cassidy, things are a little more complicated--she clearly likes Randy enough and is even willing to go out with him for a drink but when things threaten to get more serious, she gets scared and can’t help but revert to the normal position with which she deals with her other customers. Before long, Randy makes a couple of mistakes and in quick succession loses his job, Stephanie and Cassidy and is back to square one. With nothing left going for him, he makes the decision to return to the one thing that has ever made sense to him and agrees to the rematch with the Ayatollah (“This is where I belong”) despite knowing full well the enormous risk he will be taking by stepping into the ring.

“The Wrestler” was directed by Darren Aronofsky, the visionary filmmaker behind such trippy and indelible cult favorites as “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain.” Because it is the first film he has directed that he hasn’t also written the screenplay for (it was penned by former “Onion” scribe Robert D. Siegel) and because it seems so diametrically opposed to his previous efforts, some may suspect that Aronofsky took on this project purely for mercenary reasons, especially after the unfortunate box-office failure of “The Fountain.” As it turns out, not only is it as good as anything that he has ever done before as a director, it is so in tune with his previous films that I just assumed that he had written it until I took a look at the credits later on. Like his previous films, “The Wrestler” deals with an ordinary person who sets off to achieve something extraordinary--in this case, being able to walk away from the wrestling world and rebuild the life that was abandoned in the pursuit of fame and fortune--and who is driven to distraction and destruction by his inability to achieve the impossible. What is so fascinating about this particular take on that theme is that he has found a way to recast it in a way that is liable to have a more immediate resonance with most audiences because of the more direct and emotional storytelling approach he has chosen this time around. Instead of relying on the hypnotic editing patterns and quirky visuals that made his earlier films so distinctive, he has stripped away all of those technological tricks in order to tell this story in the most plain and unadorned manner possible. The result is a powerful piece of filmmaking that demonstrates once and all that Aronofsky is more than just a superior technical director. He effortlessly captures the look and feel of Randy’s lower-tier existence without rubbing it in our faces--one quick look at the pathetic turnout at a fan gathering in a desolate gymnasium says more about his hardscrabble existence than any dialogue possibly could--and his approach to shooting the wrestling sequences does a brilliant job of capturing the tawdry glamour of such events while efficiently conveying the fact that while the matches themselves may be entirely staged, the guys in the ring are still putting themselves through incredible forms of punishment in an effort to keep audiences interested, going so far as to include razor blades and staple guns into the act in order to satisfy their bloodlust. At the same time, Aronofsky and Siegel look upon this particular offshoot of the wrestling industry with a certain fondness and some of the most arresting moments come from the behind-the-scenes glimpses that we get in which people who have just been pummeling each other out in the ring are shown bonding and trading tips while patching themselves up after their fights.

Of course, if all that “The Wrestler” had going for it was Aronofsky’s skills as a filmmaker, the movie would be little more than yet another film about an over-the-hill athlete trying to pull himself together for one final match, albeit a technically and artistically superior one. What allows the film to transcend this particular subgenre and makes it an absolute must-see is Mickey Rourke‘s performance. Obviously, there are any number of parallels that one could draw between the life of Randy the Ram and Rourke’s own real-life personal and professional ups and downs. And yet, while hearing Rourke proudly declaiming “I ain’t as pretty as I used to be but I’m still here” or ruefully remarking about how “the 90’s fucking sucked” gives the lines the kind of added resonance that they might not have had if they had been uttered by Nicolas Cage (who was slated to play the role at one point), this is not one of those acting turns that derives all of its power from the constant blurring of real life and reel life. Instead, he gives us a soulful and beautifully modulated performance that is so complete stripped of any artifice that it almost becomes too much to bear at certain points. He has so many great scenes here that it is impossible to pick out just one as a standout. There is the sad and scarifying image of him suffering his backstage heart attack, apparently the one thing in the world capable of dropping him against his will. There are the painful scenes between him and Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood (both of whom are excellent, though it could be argued that the former is frankly too beautiful to be believable as a past-her-prime stripper who is finding fewer and fewer customers interested in her wares) in which he desperately tries to establish some kind of human contact and then finds himself blowing it because he simply doesn’t know any other way. There are the two extended sequences showing him working behind the counter of the deli--the joyful first one finding him slowly but surely getting into the swing of things and kibitzing with his customers and the scarifying second one in which he, having irrevocably blown things with his daughter and Cassidy for good, impulsively decides to destroy the only thing that is still working for him. Finally, there is the film’s concluding sequence in which he returns to the ring for the rematch with the Ayatollah--an extraordinary blend of physical and dramatic acting that allows him to pull out all the stops before ending on a final grace note that is simply perfect.

From the amusing opening credits montage summing up the glory days of Randy the Ram’s career to the haunting Bruce Springsteen song that plays over the end credits, “The Wrestler” is a brutal, gripping and deeply moving film that simultaneously elevates Darren Aronofsky to the ranks of the great American directors working today and single-handedly restores Mickey Rourke as one of the most electrifying actors around. Granted, there are probably quite a few people out there who wouldn’t dream of paying money to see a film like this because of their distaste for the sport of wrestling. In response, all I can say is that I have no interest in the sport and yet I was absolutely spellbound by every moment and besides, it is no more a film that is solely about wrestling than “Raging Bull” was solely about boxing. If you skip “The Wrestler” because it deals with wrestling, it means that you will be missing out on one of the very best films of the year and one of the very best performances from an actor that you will ever be privileged to see.

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originally posted: 12/25/08 17:58:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/25/18 Jamie brianorndorf's review says it all.gorgeously written, the film is just unforgettable. 5 stars
9/16/17 morris campbell boring overrated crap 1 stars
3/05/15 stanley welles a trite, gloomy and ridiculously unpleasant film with a cliched ending 2 stars
9/01/10 Barbara Leaf Excellent movie but go to see Mickey Rourke at his best. Stunning ending. 5 stars
1/20/10 art IT TAKE IT BACK FOLKS!,EXCELLENT movie,rourke is superb,ditto forevan rachelwood 5 stars
11/29/09 Flounder The best film of 2008 5 stars
8/19/09 Dr.Lao Not exactly imaginative, but very well told story 4 stars
7/20/09 MP Bartley Rourke is remarkable in a by the numbers story. 4 stars
5/04/09 R Lan A very good film. Micky Rourke deserved all the acclaim he received. 4 stars
5/02/09 Monday Morning Love Mickey, but this film is way overrated. Didn't do much for me. 3 stars
3/22/09 james obrien whats all the fuss it good but 3 stars
3/02/09 jcjs33 Mickey Mickey Mickey Marisa Marisa Marisa..real, raw, touching wow acting, delightful 5 stars
2/25/09 malcolm an old ECW fan says: brilliant performances, but not terribly original 4 stars
2/18/09 mr.mike Rourke brilliantly makes great acting look easy. 4 stars
2/16/09 Derkerdog A once in a lifetime performance from Rourke. Heartbreaking 5 stars
2/12/09 Kathleen I really like this review! The film was good too! 4 stars
2/10/09 Brian Marisa Tomei is really the unsung hero of this movie, a beautiful role and a beautiful body 5 stars
2/06/09 Alejandro Sosa I thought this film was an insanely truthful take on the wrestling industry, touching! 4 stars
2/03/09 Mark R Absolutely superb. A must-see flick. 5 stars
2/03/09 Suzz stunning acting; wonderful script; a film for the heart 5 stars
1/29/09 troy420 what movie did FrankNFurter watch one star for one brain cell! 5 stars
1/27/09 krank 4 the best movie I have ever seen, Mickey Rourke is so completely authentic. 5 stars
1/26/09 Flounder One of the best films of the year. Earns its emotional payoffs without schmaltz 5 stars
1/25/09 Samantha Pruitt very real and well acted, he makes the character come to life 5 stars
1/23/09 Luisa Very touching and raw. Great acting from Rourke and Tomei. 5 stars
1/19/09 K. Sear An entertaining character study that may signal a new Aronofsky era. 4 stars
1/15/09 FrankNFurter Rourke is hideously repugnant. And so is this film. 1 stars
1/12/09 ravenmad I've never been so moved by a film. It's raw, vulnerable, and human. 5 stars
1/10/09 Lee peaceful, rich, layered, genuine, sucks you in to tell one story out of a million 5 stars
1/06/09 the bride brilliant review, best movie of 2008, best actor oscar assured 5 stars
1/04/09 Man Out 6 Bucks Career consumption every 20+ something can relate to 5 stars
12/26/08 Greg Ursic Rourke gives the comeback performance of the year! 5 stars
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  17-Dec-2008 (R)
  DVD: 21-Apr-2009


  DVD: 21-Apr-2009

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