“Have you ever seen a one-trick pony, in fields, so happy and free? If you’ve ever seen a one-trick pony, then you’ve seen me.” That’s an excerpt from the new Springsteen song from the unbelievable new film “The Wrestler” – Mickey Rourke’s so-called comeback film. It’s an excellent song, depicting beautifully the feeling of Rourke’s character, an aging professional wrestler looking for meaning in his life at any cost. It’s certainly one of the best films of the year mostly because of its star’s glorious performance of blazing realism and grace.
Randy “The Ram” Robinson has been a hit with pro-wrestling fans for more than 20 years, and even in his old age he’s still able to take a beating every Saturday night. He disproves the myth that wrestling is 100% fake, as Randy is always in the arms of medics after almost every fight. Randy is quite tragic, always putting his career ahead of more important things and often using drugs to do so. He is estranged from his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood, a bit of a yawn but respectable) and more often than not the job doesn’t compensate well enough and Randy can’t pay the rent and sleeps in his van. But he is a wrestler – that is his identity and that’s all he knows how to be. He’s stuck, but seemingly content enough.
It’s not until a seriously dangerous fight in which Randy begins to realize his mistakes. He has a major heart attack and is told he can no longer fight. This destroys him especially since a major rematch has been planned with his old foe The Ayatollah, but his fighting instinct keeps him alive. He finds love in a similar soul, the middle-aged stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, who is finally taking risks with roles). She helps him connect with his daughter, and Randy’s life seems to be picking up. Unfortunately for Randy, his wounds begin to re-open and he finds that life is random and often too cruel for those who, as Randy puts it, “Burn the candle at both ends.”
It’s a classic story of the battered and beaten underdog getting another peek at stardom. It has the same feeling as Rocky’s return in “Rocky Balboa” but this film is so much more remorseful. It also happens to be unquestionably touching. “The Wrestler” is a much more interesting film than “Rocky Balboa,” in that it reaches to an audience that Rocky could never touch. Randy was eaten alive by the ‘90s, an era in which the affects of the drugs he took in the ‘80s have begun to take their toll – something that a certain niche audience may find to be autobiographical. Randy can’t escape the ‘80s, and his inability to quit the hard life will surely kill him.
Mickey Rourke is not only the best actor for the role – he’s the only one. There are several comparisons between actor and character and in many instances in the film Randy seems to be playing Rourke. In the role, Rourke is a powerhouse and one of the few miracles on the screen this year. He brings a sadness to the role that is genuine, and depressingly real (the comparisons between Rourke and his character are unfeigned) but Rourke also shows a mastery of the part – he definitely did his research.
The role of the Ram is instantly iconic, as we haven’t really seen a lot of professional wrestlers as film protagonists and because of Rourke’s disquieting realism. It’s odd to think of Mickey Rourke and the phrase “acting masterpiece” in the same sentence, but he really does achieve excellence. As for his so-called “comeback,” those who saw his outstanding performance in 2005’s “Sin City” would call that a comeback in terms of performance. However, this film will open doors for Rourke that “Sin City” would never have even touched and it is safe to say this may not be his last shot at the big time. He’s not just a one-trick pony and is piledriving audiences with one of the year’s best performances.
Marisa Tomei is proving that she is not just a one-off Oscar winner with her choice to star in this film. In her role as a stripper, she looks pretty good for a 44-year-old, although doesn’t show a lot of range. However, when she puts on her clothes and we see her in the real world we get to see the real Cassidy (her real name turns out to be Pam) and we see a real woman – almost as crestfallen as her best customer (Randy). “Seinfeld” fans always thought Marisa Tomei was more into short, bald and stocky guys – but with Rourke she has inimitable chemisty.
“The Wrestler” will definitely be a hit with audiences when it makes its eventual wide release. Even though the film is excessively brutal and often hard to watch, people will find an underdog story that is both constructed and acted impressively and also timely. Right now, in this economy we may feel a bit beaten like the Ram but we need to remember that there’s always a chance for a comeback.