Directed By: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
Tag line: "Love. Pain. Glory"
Trivia: This film reportedly moved wrestler Roddy Piper so much that he broke down and cried after a screening
Mickey Rourke received widespread critical acclaim for his portrayal of aging wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson in Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 drama The Wrestler, and as a longtime fan of the actor’s, I’d like to add my voice to the praise. More than a solid performance, it was a reminder of the incredible promise Rourke showed in his early days, and a sign that he still has plenty of greatness left in him.
A star in the 1980s, Randy the Ram has fallen on lean times as of late, wrestling on the weekends in very small venues and supplementing his income with a part-time job at a supermarket deli. One night at a local strip club, he meets Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), an aging stripper he immediately befriends. Things continue to look up for Randy when, after winning a match, he’s approached by a promoter who recommends a rematch between him and his old adversary, “The Ayatollah” (Ernest Miller), a showdown that could get his career rolling again. But as he’s training for this upcoming gig, Randy suffers a major heart attack, and after surgery, is told he can never wrestle again. While the prospect of a forced retirement doesn’t sit well with him, Randy does what he can to make the best of it, and at Cassidy’s urging even attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who he hasn’t seen in years. But try as he might to live a normal life, Randy can’t let go of his past, and despite the threat to his health, decides to go ahead with the rematch, fully realizing that doing so may ultimately cost him his life.
There isn't a scene in The Wrestler when Mickey Rourke is anything short of brilliant, from the way he handles Randy’s interactions with fans and fellow wrestlers early in the film (grateful that they still admire him, and always quick with a word of encouragement for a younger wrestler) to the moment where his character suffers a heart attack, which brings with it the realization that what little glory he had left is now a thing of the past. Equally as good are his scenes with his two main co-stars, Tomei and Wood, both playing individuals Randy hopes to build a lasting relationship with (the sequence on the vacant boardwalk, where Randy is pouring his heart out to his daughter, will surely bring tears to your eyes). More than anything, though, Rourke ensures that we, the audience, understand every decision his character makes, whether it’s the right one or not. Like Randy, we realize that climbing back into the ring could kill him, yet after watching him struggle to make a life outside the sport, we know exactly why he’s willing to risk it all. Randy is a guy who doesn’t have much, so to give up wrestling, the one thing that reminds him of the “glory days”, is easier said than done. Yes, he could die, but without wrestling, it’s like he’s dead already.
From Body Heat to Diner, and The Pope of Greenwich Village to Angel Heart, you could always rely on Mickey Rourke to give 100%, and with The Wrestler, we see that he hasn’t lost his touch (though, to be honest, I also thought he was strong in Sin City, as well as Tony Scott’s unfairly savaged 2005 film, Domino). So good was Rourke’s performance as Randy the Ram that even the Academy sat up and took notice, nominating him for Best Actor, the first time he was ever up for the award.
And with all due respect to Sean Penn, who was indeed spectacular as the lead in Milk, the Oscar that year should have gone to Rourke. No question about it.