Tuesday, 20 January 2009

REVIEW: The Wrestler

Welcome back Mr Rourke!

It is impossible to talk about The Wrestler without the obvious parallels between the character of Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson and Mickey Rourke’s real-life career. Every review I have read so far has mentioned the inevitable comparison and, to be honest, it is unavoidable.

In short, Mickey Rourke was a popular leading man back in the 80s. He started turning down roles in major movies, then chose to quit acting and return to professional boxing in 1991. Even being offered the role of Butch in Pulp Fiction couldn’t change his mind. At first. But eventually, when boxing didn’t work out, he attempted to break back into Hollywood but by that time Hollywood had shut the door. Rourke was therefore filed under ‘has-been’ and has rarely been seen again.

It’s not quite right to call The Wrestler his comeback (that came courtesy of Robert Rodriguez who cast him in Once Upon A Time in Mexico and gave him the kick-ass role of Marv in Sin City) but it is certainly the first time he has headlined a film in almost twenty years. And judging by this performance, it won’t be the last.

In short, Rourke is epic.

No-one else could play the role of an over-the-hill wrestler this well except an over-the hill ex-boxer/ex-actor like Rourke. He delivers lines like, ‘I’m just an old piece of meat’ with such pathos that you just know he is speaking for himself, as much as the character. And the script allows Rourke to shine. He becomes the character, switching adeptly between the tear-jerking moments (dancing with his estranged daughter), the drama (suffering a heart attack) and a healthy amount of comedy.

The comedy is another reason I like this film. It really shows that not all award-winning performances require woeful, understated deliverance like Kate Winslet in The Reader. This role proves that an actor can have fun with a role and win a Golden Globe – hopefully soon to be an Oscar. The moments of comedy are wide and frequent: playing NES with a kid who talks about Call of Duty 4, picking out clothes for his daughter (‘I think she is a lesbian, does that affect what I buy her?’) and his initial enthusiasm serving people at the deli counter. All brilliant.

And the physicality of the role requires somebody tough like Rourke. He is looking stacked throughout and he needs to be. Although pro-wrestling is largely fake, Rourke is thrown around the ring in a blur of shakey-cam flips and smackdowns. And everyone leaving this film will remember the insane, Jackass-style bout involving barbed wire, glass, drawing pins and – unforgettably - a staple gun. When the words ‘Fourteen minutes earlier…’ flash up on the screen, you know you are in for a treat.

There are other praises to sing (Marisa Tomei, Rachel Evan Wood, Aronofsky’s hand-held direction) but The Wrestler is Rourke’s showcase through and through. And when the film’s abrupt cut-to-black ending arrives, you will be left hoping that he gets the Oscar next month.

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