The Wrestler

Marisa Tomei and Mickey Rourke share a tender moment.

Marisa Tomei and Mickey Rourke share a tender moment.

(Fox Searchlight) Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Mark Margolis, Todd Barry, Wass Stevens, Judah Friedlander, Ernest Miller. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The world of professional wrestling is deceptive. While there are “superstars” who command huge salaries and fan adulation, there are hundreds of others toiling in smaller promotions trying to get their big break. Those superstars, however, don’t always stay at the top and once you fall, there’s only one direction to go.

Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke) has gone there. One of wrestling’s top draws in the ‘80s, he is struggling to make ends meet – and not always succeeding – twenty years after the fact. He still wrestles, but out of the limelight for smaller promotions. After a grueling match with an eager young up-and-comer, he comes home to find he’s been locked out of his trailer, so he’s forced to sleep in his van.

During the week he stocks groceries at a local grocery store for a boss who is less than sympathetic (Barry) which pays for most of his bills. At night, he patronizes a strip club where he has taken a shine to a particular girl, Cassidy (Tomei). She is older than most of the girls and takes a fair amount of grief for it from young punks who come to the club, which may be why the Ram likes her so much – in many ways, they’re in the same situation.

She has a young son as the Ram has a daughter (Wood), although he is estranged from his; the constant traveling of his profession kept him away from most of her important moments and all of her birthdays. She wants nothing more to do with the broken down piece of meat that her father has become.

However, the invincibility of the Ram has come into question. After a particularly brutal match in which a staple gun is used on the Ram’s leathery skin (hey, these kinds of matches actually happen) and having the staples painfully removed, he collapses in the locker room. He wakes up in the hospital, where the doctor explains that he’s had a cardiac bypass operation and his wrestling career is over.

Alone, without even the solace of the ring, Randy begins to reach out – to his daughter, to Cassidy, to anyone. He is making some small progress, but his own failings get in the way. His world crumbling around him, Randy agrees to a match – a 20th anniversary match against his greatest opponent, the Ayatollah (Miller) – that could lead to a big payday. It could also lead to the Ram’s demise.

Much has been made of Rourke’s performance, and I absolutely agree – this will be the performance he will be remembered for. While Sean Penn would win the Oscar for his role in Milk (and to be honest, Penn nailed the part), it should have gone to Rourke. Rourke’s Randy “the Ram” is much like a bull in a bullring; magnificent, strong and fierce, roaring at those who seek to skewer him, bellowing to let the world know he is there and should not be taken lightly. His performance is central to the movie’s appeal and shouldn’t be missed.

Kudos should go to Aronofsky for capturing the backstage world of professional wrestling. Accurate by all accounts (pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper purportedly was moved to tears by the movie), one gets a sense of the camaraderie of the boys in the back, of the quiet dignity and the unspoken desperation.

Tomei’s contribution shouldn’t be overlooked either. The stripper with a heart of gold is a bit of a cliché in the movies, but Cassidy’s heart is tarnished. A good person, she looks at her chosen line of work as a means to an end. Interacting with customers should be limited to her stage show and the occasional lap dance. She is friendly, but keeps people at arms length. She likes the Ram, but can’t allow herself to become involved with him. Therein lies the road to heartbreak and trouble, and she wants neither. Like the Ram, she wears her loneliness as a protective shield.

This is one of those movies that gets under your skin and stays there. You don’t have to be a wrestling fan to love Randy “the Ram” Robinson or root for him. This is a human story at its very core, more about a man who has made mistakes and has been wounded by them than about leg drops and arm bars. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. When the credits roll, I guarantee that you won’t forget Randy Robinson for a long, long time.

WHY RENT THIS: Mickey Rourke gives the performance of a lifetime in what is sure to be his career-defining role. Even if you’re not a wrestling fan, you’ll be drawn into the world of Randy “The Ram” Robinson. This is one of the best movies of 2008.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The wrestling violence is pretty graphic, and the depiction of Randy’s heart attack may be a bit much for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Graphic wrestling violence (there is a great deal of blood) as well as a high dose of sexuality and nudity make this more of a film for mature sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The final match of the movie was filmed during an actual Ring of Honor card. Several Ring of Honor wrestlers make cameos in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray version of the release includes a round-table discussion of real wrestling legends Diamond Dallas Page, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Lex Luger (who was used as a body double for Rourke in the opening montage of Randy “The Ram” Robinson at his height), Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake about the accuracy and merit of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: This Is England

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