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The Wrestler: A has-been's life makes for a glorious comeback

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

The Wrestler

  • Directed by Darren Aronofsky
  • Written by Robert D. Siegel
  • Starring Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood
  • Classification: 14A
  • Rating: threestar

Mickey Rourke's performance in The Wrestler brings to mind the title of an old album by the Who — Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy. Massively pumped up to near-Hulk Hogan proportions, with similar long, dyed-blond hair, with a self-deprecating smirk playing across his scarred mug, the actor has created a character that is both mythically familiar and original. There are two such performances in movies this year; one is Rourke's in The Wrestler, as a trailer-park Hercules, the other is Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, reinventing Satan as a spluttering, paranoid freak.

While there are parallels between his life and this story of a burned-out eighties wrestling star trying to make a comeback, Rourke isn't playing himself here. The performance is too disciplined physically and comically to be anything else than something carefully worked out. For that, he can probably thank the obsessive discipline of director Darren Aronofsky.

The director, whose name became synonymous with hyperactive visual trickery in such films as Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, shows a whole new skill set here, setting the bigger-than-life character in relief against an austere, documentary-style in in a wintry, working-class New Jersey milieu.

In the early scenes, the hand-held camera of Maryse Alberti, a cinematographer with extensive documentary credits, from Taxi to the Dark Side to Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine) follows Rourke's hulking body from behind, as we learn the humdrum truth about life in the pits of showbiz. Shot throughout with jump cuts and natural light, The Wrestler immerses us in the petty humiliations of a has-been. The costs of upkeep — hair bleach, tanning salons and human-growth hormone — eat up all of his earnings, which is why he has been locked out of his rented trailer and forced to sleep in a van. Twenty years before, as Randy (The Ram) Robinson, he was a Rocky-style folk hero whose most famous match was against a villain called The Ayatollah, a guy in a mask who waved an Iranian flag to rouse the ire of blue-collar wrestling fans.

There are also occasional surreal flashes: When Randy takes a job working behind a deli counter wearing an effeminizing hair net, he walks into his job imagining a crowd roaring its approval. Sure enough, even as a clerk, he's a charismatic showman, in the most lightly humorous scenes in the film. When a promoter decides to stage a 20-year anniversary rematch, Randy finds a revived sense of purpose. He makes a play for his favourite stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), whose real name is Pam. Randy (whose real name is Robin) is a friend, but he still has to pay for his dances, and Pam keeps him at arm's length though they have a lot in common, hangers-on in a trade that pays for young bodies, not aging ones.

Neither Aronofsky nor scriptwriter Robert D. Siegel tries to hide the allegorical elements: "I'm an old broken-down piece of meat," Randy says in a moment of self-pity, after he tries for a reconciliation with his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), and then blows it by getting drunk and missing their date. Later, checking out his wounds after a particularly vicious battle, Pam tells him he should go see The Passion of the Christ. "They threw everything at him," she says.

Like The Passion of the Christ, The Wrestler is often gruesome. The wrestling scenes (some using real wrestlers) are horrifying another word?, showing the choreographed moves and camaraderie, as well as the real blood thrills of the spectacle, where stage props include barbed wire and razor blades ripping skin and opening bloody leaks. As documentaries about Bret Hart and Mick (Mankind) Foley show, wrestling is a kind of play acting where it's also easy to get badly hurt.

Like pro wrestling itself, The Wrestler also has moments of improbable hokum. The scenes showing the wary romance between Randy and Pam, and the bruising father-daughter subplot, are about as subtle as a forearm smash to the larynx. But the excesses are easy to forgive, both for the humour and charisma of Rourke's outsized performance and Aronofsky's canny low-key direction, which make for a combination that is irresistible.

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