Judge Bill Gibron once grappled under the name "The Chicago Steamroller." Sadly, his career fell flat.
Our review of The Wrestler, published April 21st, 2009, is also available.
Love. Pain. Glory.
As much as the publicity surrounding its realization suggested otherwise, there really wasn't a major call for a Mickey Rourke revival. Think hard—when was the last time you heard someone in the media, legitimate or otherwise, pine for the days of such marginal works as Wild Orchid, Bullet, The Pledge, or Domino? Frankly, the last time Rourke had any substantive buzz surrounding his work, he was playing the human retaliation machine in the clever live action "cartoon" of Frank Miller's Sin City, and even that remarkable performance turned into a minor cultural blip on his free-falling career radar. No, it took a sensational filmmaker in the guise of Darren Aronofsky, working way outside his typical highly stylized and visual comfort zone to provide the backdrop for the true Rourke return. And with the dynamic and quite memorable The Wrestler, he did just that. In tandem, they create one of the more astonishing character studies about life on the fringes—of fame, of family, of fallibility—since John Huston took us all the way to Fat City.
Facts of the Case
For Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke, The Pope of Greenwich Village), eternal stardom came quickly and burned very, very bright. As one of the '80s premiere wrestlers, he was a title holder and a public draw. He was so popular he even had his own action figure. Now, two decades later, he is battered, bruised, and broken. Taking menial matches on the weekends to supplement his food service, trailer park existence, he's desperate to reclaim his past glory. While in remarkable shape for a man of his age, life is apparently set to beat him down one last time. A literal busted heart, a grim diagnosis, and it looks like The Ram's career is done. With said information in hand, he tries to reconnect with his distant, distressed daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, Across the Universe) and strikes up a possible relationship with sympathetic stripper Cassidy (Marissa Tomei, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead). But for this former fan icon, an anniversary rematch may be the very thing that keeps his legacy and hopes alive. It may also kill him outright.
A lot of reviews forget this facet of The Wrestler, and with the limited perspective that comes from age and familiarity with the genre's past, it's not hard to overlook. With all its neo-noir bells and whistles and desire to be almost documentary like in approach, few mention the fact that this terrific take on '80s squared circle superiority is actually a variation on Rod Serling's sensational Requiem for a Heavyweight. No, it's not a remake, or inspired by same, nor does it directly link to that famous teleplay (later made into an amazing movie with Anthony Quinn and Jackie Gleason). But in both Serling's look inside the world of an aging prize fighter and Aronofsky's take on similar material, we learn that a life being the physical brunt of another human being's rage can only lead to despair, anguish, pain, and personal humiliation. Argue all you want to with the almost formulaic facets of either narrative, but without a sound basis in the familiar, we'd be locked out of this unique universe without any real way in. By embracing the already tried, the truth finally is able to find its way.
Granted, none of this would work without Rourke's revelatory performance, a transformation so remarkable that it makes the most Methodized approach to acting look like merely faking it. It's shameless and brazen, forged out of millions of memorized moments encapsulated in a dozen different tics and facial riffs. Rourke isn't just Randy "The Ram" Robinson—he's the epitome of every fallen athlete who has nothing else to rely on except the God given talent that is slowly being eaten away by time. This is a man who can't literally do anything else, who lived the life of a legitimate legend and has enough retainable draw to dare seek little else. Even as his body degenerates into random pools of pill-necessitating issues, he never looses focus. The day job at the supermarket? A diversion until his career comeback is secure. The daughter he never sees? A far too painful reminder of the life he once had. The stripper who strays a little too close to his interpersonal needs? Just some skirt to chase—that is, unless she shows some interest. Then the floodgates will open wide…
It's not like Rourke is working alone here. Evan Rachel Wood as Stephanie and Marissa Tomei as Cassidy are the yin and yang of Ram's reality. On the one hand, there's a young girl who just wants her father back. When she sees he's not capable of that, the borders she built long ago are refitted and fortified. With the dancer turned potential paramour, the stakes are strangely similar. Tomei's torn woman just wants a man she can depend on, someone to make sure her kid is cared for and secure. Working where she does, the obstacle between client and "talent" can be blurred and breakable. The Ram gets close, coming as near as any man to making Cassidy feel desired outside the purely sexual set-up of her job. Wood is wonderful in her scenes with Rourke, the uneasy silences and outright confrontations doing a brilliant job of establishing rules and the path of eventual parting. Tomei has the tougher assignment and she pulls it off with matured aplomb. We believe everything about Cassidy—her casual view of carnality, her joy at his outside attention, the disappointment when it looks like Ram will simply be another promise without a payoff.
It is Aronofsky who becomes The Wrestler's most valuable player, however. His decision to go hand-held and up close, to probe the problems that Ram has without ever once delving into overly dramatic set-ups or stations is inspired. There are times when you keep waiting for Rourke to wave the camera off, acknowledging via such fourth-wall breaking techniques that there is indeed someone sitting beside him, lens at the wait to expose everything about this destitute soul. Sure, when there is a need for a little finesse (as in the sparkling finale, or the sequence where Ram's multiple post-match injuries are illustrated in painstaking flashback detail), Aronofsky delivers, and his eye for found locations is terrific. But it's his work with actors that really makes The Wrestler. Had there been a bad performance (or worse yet, a casting mistake like original studio mandated Ram Nicholas Cage at the helm), the movie would have been half-hearted and baked. Instead, thanks to the machine like precision of the cast and crew, Aronofsky delivers one of his best films—and with Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain in his oeuvre, that's saying something.
So let them all buzz about Rourke. Let the naysayers dismiss the movie as nothing but a brilliant acting turn surrounded by sloppy '80s meta-nostalgia. At the core of this creative smash is a simple prospect—what would happen to someone who only understands a life in pursuit of a single ability when said skill is marginalized, or now fails to materialize. Would such a despairing downward spiral be interesting, or insightful? The answer, obviously, is "Yes," and "Yes." The Wrestler remains one of 2008's best films, a sensational risk by everyone involved that pays off in epic emotional realities.
Unlike the standard DVD edition, the Blu-ray version of the title offers a digital copy on a second disc, as well as a secondary bonus featurette in which several name legends of the wrestling ring—Greg Valentine, Lex Luger, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Diamond Dallas Page, and Brutus Beefcake—sit down to discuss their reactions to the film and the realities (or lack thereof) that it depicts. Entitled "Wrestler Round Table," it's a witty and wonderful bit of added context. In addition, there's the 42 minute Making-of that's meticulous in its detail and backstage drama, a video for Bruce Springsteen's theme song (which, as we all know, was criminally overlooked by Oscar at this year's ceremony), and a collection of trailers, including one for The Boss' latest release Working on a Dream.
From the technical side of things, the Blu-ray image, the AVC @ 28 MBPS encoded 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is terrific—that is, if you're not expecting some manner of eye-popping cinematic spectacle. Aronofksy shot this on the cheap to make the movie as authentic and gritty as possible, and the results more than speak for themselves. On the high definition format, the ever-present grain is enhanced slightly, and you can see some flaws in the film stock itself, but otherwise, it approximates the theatrical experience expertly. On the sound side, there is only one available English track—a Dolby Digital DTS HD loseless 5.1 Surround Master Audio offering. It's an excellent combination of quiet moments, '80s hair metal, Clint Mansell scoring, and easily understandable dialogue. The recreation is almost flawless. There's also a standard 5.1 mix in Spanish. Included are English Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (SDH) which mimic the conversations quite well.
It's obvious to even the most jaded motion picture perspective that The Wrestler was the result of dozens of happy accidents instead of one single vision carrying the entire project through to its inevitable awards season end. From casting to creative choices within the film itself, the sad yet surprisingly uplifting tale of Randy "The Ram" Robinson's attempt at a last act reprieve from irrelevance truly establishes Mickey Rourke as a talent still capable of great work—when he wants. It also argues that Darren Aronofsky is more than just a high-minded artist who likes to play games with his celluloid experiments before finally befuddling the audience with his aesthetic aspirations. When both are working within the confines of believability, when they aren't taking themselves as seriously, they wind up concocting a true winner. Randy "The Ram" Robinson may be a has-been, but The Wrestler assures that all involved will be remembered for decades to come.
Not Guilty. It's that fine a film. A tour de force taken down a few notches by a desire to be realistic, not ridiculous.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2009 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.