(This is a formal movie review; sometime in the next week I plan to pen a more wrestling-centric write-up with a lot more “Whoa, they showed that?” and “Why the hell was Capt. Lou Albino in the shot?” type of stuff.)
Only a year and a half removed from thickly muscled professional wrestler Chris Benoit murdering his wife and young son before hanging himself in his home gym, and with the U.S. Congress currently breathing down the neck of the entertaining sport with accusations of steroid use in hand, tumult surrounds the strategic release date (think Oscar consideration, and rightfully so) for “The Wrestler”. But the turmoil surrounding and brewing within Mickey Rourke’s aging, addictive but gentle character makes far better drama than any angle or storyline professional wrestling’s script writers have conjured up since Hulkamania ran wild or Steve Austin nailed Vince McMahon with a “Stone Cold Stunner.”
Rourke’s character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, once stood atop the professional wrestling world, headlining sold-out shows at “The Garden,” winning various “Wrestler of the Year” accolades and even being immortalized in action figure form. But that was the mid-1980s; fast-forward to the present day, and Robinson finds himself scrounging for rent for his mobile home, slinging potato salad at a grocery store deli counter and stepping through the ropes at the occasional weekend wrestling show in front of a few dozen nostalgic fans. And “The Ram’s” time on the road comes back to haunt in him: Years of chugging beer and cavorting with strippers prove to be hard habits to break, the money he does earn goes into his bloodstream in steroid form before it goes toward his bills, and the connection with his daughter that once was lost is now severed, possibly beyond repair.
The basic plotlines have been done before – man down on his luck, father attempting to reconnect with child, stripper with a heart of gold – but they have never been intertwined quite so well, and never with the twist of the male lead as a professional wrestler. “Pretty Woman” this ain’t: Rourke as a low-class wrestler and trailer park superstar and Marisa Tomei as a topless dancer supporting her child shine through their gritty settings and awkward interactions. The two tackle their respective roles so strongly that it’s easy to ignore their culturally taboo professions and see them simply as flawed human beings for whom viewers will wish only the best.
In fact, Mickey Rourke plays the lovable loser so well you want to cheer him to victory, whether in scripted scuffles with his in-ring opponents, struggles with his daughter and love interest or battles against his smarmy boss, inconsiderate customers and within himself. Robinson tries – and sometimes forgets – to come to grips with being a former star, but some people he meets with either have no idea he once was famous, they poke fun at him for it, or they simply don’t care. At times when you’d assume Hollywood would go the “angry killer wrestler” route, Robinson reacts instead with a tear, a smile or a sense of humor. But rarely does “The Ram” shuffle through life; he rolls with the punches, stands tall, and only once does Robinson “snap,” but by that point in the movie the audience realizes Randy is a genuine, happily humble human being not corrupted by his medium-scale former fame. When Robinson spends his hard-earned money on booze or steroids, you’re pissed not because he’s a bad guy, but because you care. When Robinson earns that money in a wrestling match featuring staples being shot into his flesh, you grimace not (just) because it’s disgusting, but because you empathize with his desperation. Writer Robert Siegel, director Darren Aronofsky and Rourke combine their efforts to create a character sketch deeper than Andre the Giant’s voice and more thorough than a federal investigation. The end result is Rourke, once down on his own luck, portraying an underdog whose every step helps the viewer understand what it’s like to walk a mile in his shoes, or wrestle an hour in his boots.
The camera literally follows Robinson throughout the movie, looking over his shoulder, into his boss’ office to ask for more hours, into the strip club after hours, and into the locker room to greet his fellow wrestlers before their big matches. It’s a fine cinematic technique when it’s used, distancing viewers from the action but offering the lead character’s point of view. This especially works during the locker room scenes: For hardcore wrestling fans, some of the “insider” verbiage might come off heavy-handed, but for non-fans, the voyeurism into this shielded world expertly tears down a fourth wall many people may have never known existed (those who still believe blood in wrestling comes from ketchup packets are in for a rude awakening).
If “The Wrestler” fails to pin anything to the mat for a three count, it’s the dialogue. Not that Rourke’s Robinson asking Tomei’s Cassidy on a date need be Shakespearian in scope, or that a post-“retirement” phone call to a promoter need to be the next “I’ll be back.” But writer Siegel took Robinson’s everyman nature to its most basic level. Nothing said during the movie is really memorable. But perhaps for “The Wrestler,” this approach is for the best. The humor is dry, not Sandleresque; Todd Barry as Robinson’s boss is funny, not schticky or insulting. The anger is palpable, not verbose; Evan Rachel Wood as Robinson’s daughter says nothing more than what a real angry child would say, but she says it with engaging emotion, not overdone schmaltz. And besides, dialogue isn’t the be-all end-all of movie writing: “The Wrestler” is well crafted even if the dialogue isn’t ground-breakingly poignant or anything. In this movie’s case, simple is effective.
The former World Wrestling Federation replaced the last word in its name with “Entertainment” to reflect a more holistic approach to its circus-like production. Neither Total Nonstop Action nor Ring of Honor (the real company that hosts the fictional Robinson’s big rematch with the nefarious Ayatollah) even include the word “wrestling” in their monikers. Even if professional wrestling is trying to distance itself from professional wrestling, moviegoers mustn’t avoid “The Wrestler” simply because of the main character’s chosen profession. Mickey Rourke’s career resurrection could not have started without the role of Randy “The Ram” Robinson (and Randy “The Ram” Robinson would have sucked had Nicolas Cage donned the tights as originally planned), and this wonderful tale would not have flown without a top rope from which to jump. “The Wrestler” deserves the championship attention it has received thus far, including the talk that Rourke, come Oscar time, may raise his hands in victory once more. -Eric