The Wrestler (R) ***½

 

Mickey's back with a no-holds-barred winner.

By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

You have to wait a little while to get a good look at Mickey Rourke's face in The Wrestler. For the movie's first few minutes, director Darren Aronofsky keeps his camera mostly behind and to the side of the actor, playing the washed-up pro wrestler Randy ''The Ram'' Robinson, as he signs autographs for a pair of fans, catches his breath after his latest match, goes home to discover his trailer has been padlocked by his landlord for late rent, and ends up spending the night inside his ramshackle van.

When you finally get to really see Rourke's face, the result is a bit startling. Rourke hasn't exactly disappeared from the public eye -- he's been acting steadily in films for the past 10 years -- but his puffy, lumpy mug in The Wrestler still takes a little getting used to. He doesn't just look like 100 miles of hard road: He looks like he's been paving it, too.

That's part of what makes Rourke the perfect choice to play The Ram. Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) persevered to cast the actor, despite the advice of everyone in Hollywood, for a reason: The Wrestler is one of those pictures where the lines between performer and character are intentionally blurred for dramatic gain.

Watching Rourke as The Ram, with his garishly bleached mane, artificial tan, steroid-pumped physique and ineffably sad, wounded eyes, you don't have to squint too hard to see the parallels between the two men.

This is the fictional story of a wrestling superstar who, long removed from his heyday in the 1980s, is struggling to eke out a simple existence, dealing with a body crumbling from the abuses of the past and consumed by loneliness, having alienated everyone who was once dear to him, including his resentful daughter (Evan Rachel Wood).

The script, written by Robert D. Siegel, is replete with potentially corny clichés, including a stripper with a heart of gold (played by Marisa Tomei with her usual strength and poise), the closest thing The Ram has to a romantic relationship. The Ram also has been told by his doctor that if he enters the ring again, he risks a fatal heart attack. Befitting a picture about grown men in tights smacking each other around, subtlety plays a small role here.

But Aronofsky, leaving behind the high cinematic style of his previous films in favor of a straightforward, near-documentary approach, plays each of the story's turns (including its more improbable ones) with complete earnestness, counting on the sympathy Rourke earns from the audience to carry the film.

The Wrestler presents a fascinating peek at the workings of the pro wrestling industry (the tenderness and humor the athletes share backstage is the complete opposite of the ferocity they display in the ring). It is also, at times, breathtakingly graphic in its depiction of the lengths wrestlers will go to entertain the audience (the staple-gun match stands out as particularly vicious).

Mostly, though, The Wrestler is Rourke's show, and the movie reminds you just how engaging he can be, whether with a comical sequence in which The Ram tries to make a go at working behind a deli counter serving obnoxious patrons, or a heartbreaking scene in which we watch him playing a wrestling video game on an ancient Nintendo with a kid who lives down the street, momentarily lost in the memories of his golden past. It's a wonderful, career-reviving performance, and you can't imagine the movie without him. Welcome back, Mickey.

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Mark Margolis, Todd Barry, Wass Stevens

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Screenwriter: Robert D. Siegel

Producers: Darren Aronofsky, Scott Franklin

A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Running time: 109 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, graphic wrestling violence. In Miami-Dade: Regal South Beach, AMC Sunset Place, Aventura; in Broward: Gateway.

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