Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The Wrestler [The Review]

Mickey Rourke stars as the washed-up New Jersey wrestler in this Oscar-tipped low-budget movie, due for US release on 19th December.

Rourke's performance as the washed-up eighties actor playing a washed-up eighties wrestler has gripped those cultural commentators who have already seen it. Nobody ever thought this would happen – a comeback performance from Mickey Rourke many years on from his 1980’s triumphs with Barfly, Angel Heart, 9½ Weeks and Rumblefish.

Rourke plays Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (and gets annoyed when people use his real name), a career wrestler who is still putting on performances way past his sell-by date and having to supplement his meagre income with work heaving crates in a warehouse. He lives in a trailer park, is estranged from his daughter and seems to have few friends, even though he’s popular with his fans and his fellow wrestlers. During one event he suffers a cardiac arrest, and briefly retires, involving a humiliating stint on a deli counter in a supermarket.

Tempted by a rematch of his most famous fight back in 1986, he unwisely agrees the fight, the massive bypass scar still healing across his chest, pumping himself full if pharmaceuticals and steroids to build up bulk.

Director Darren Aronofsky is best when he plays his New York card – fancifully in Pi, but very down-to-earth in Requiem for a Dream (2000), a film whose central performance, with Ellen Burstyn as a middle-aged woman addicted to speed-filled slimming cures, won an Oscar. Here he’s in New Jersey. This is a cold and fairly uninviting place, and the hand-held camerawork accentuates the feeling of a documentary.

The environment is wintry and decaying, but the wrestling ring, somehow, always feel warm – and its understandable why Randy feels forever drawn back to it. It’s not like it was however; he was to endure many novelty, gothic acts, which involve a great deal of superficial mutilation and bleeding. The audience, these days, doesn’t want peroxided men in spangly tights and Guns and Roses on the soundtrack. They want rivers of blood.

Randy describes himself as a ‘big broken piece of meat’ and that is the feeling that Rourke gives with every inch of his performance. Indeed, the final speech that Randy gives at the end could as well describe the troubled career of Rourke himself, who at one time retired from acting to box professionally.

There’s hardly a scene where we don’t see Randy, whether he’s trying to make friendly with his angry, estranged daughter, getting picked up by a slightly suspect female fan, or in the ring with fights. There are no Rocky style training sequences. Training sequences are, to be honest, pretty boring. Instead we get more attention payed to the unexpected femininity of these super-masculine figures – the care they take with their hair being dyed, the tanning, the obsession with the body beautiful.

This isn’t Rocky, this is rock-bottom. Both Aronofsky and Rourke have pulled of a spectacular, shining comeback here – Aronofsky from the disaster of The Fountain and Rourke from the disaster of his life. This film is highly recommended.

***** stars our of five

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