- Rated R
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All photos © Fox Searchlight
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
f there’s one movie that I was looking forward to more than any other this season, it was Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.” Having already won top honors at the Venice Film Festival, Aronofsky’s latest may not be as conceptually brilliant as his other work, but it’s just as good. The film also represents a big maturation for the director – not only because it marks the first time he’s helmed a movie that he didn’t also write, but because for once he’ll be lauded not for his visual style, but for the performance that he gets out of his lead actor. Much has been made about Mickey Rourke’s “comeback" and the parallels that can be drawn between his own life and that of the character he plays, and Aronofsky is just as responsible for that as Rourke himself. Still, it’ll be the resurrected actor who gets all the attention when the ballots have been counted, and for good reason, because without his brave performance, “The Wrestler” would be mediocre at best.
Rourke stars as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a former wrestling star from the 1980s who now lives alone in a trailer park in New Jersey. When he’s not unloading trucks at the local supermarket, Randy spends his weekends working the independent wrestling circuit where he’s still a god in the ring and a respected veteran in the locker room. More than happy to reminisce about his glory days to anyone who will listen, the sport has clearly taken a toll on his body (including a busted ear drum that requires he wear a hearing aid), as well as his life. When an especially brutal match sends him to the hospital with a heart attack, Randy awakens to discover that he has no one there to take care of him. Forced to give up the one thing he loves, Randy seeks advice from his confidant – an aging stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) – who suggests he try to reconnect with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). But when an opportunity to return to the big leagues comes knocking in the form of a 20th anniversary rematch with his former rival, the allure of the crowd beckons him back to the ring one last time.
An engaging character study of a man seeking redemption, “The Wrestler” may be overly sentimental and even a bit long, but Randy is such an interesting subject that you don’t really mind. This is the movie Sylvester Stallone wish he made with “Rocky Balboa,” and though the story itself is predictable, it’s the smaller moments within that elevate the character to something beyond just a two-dimensional clown in a pair of flashy tights. Mickey Rourke’s powerhouse performance is a heartbreaking tour de force that only gets better with each passing minute, and though he has some stiff competition from the likes of Frank Langella, you’d be kidding yourself if you don’t think Rourke will still be a frontrunner at this year’s Oscars. There’s one scene in particular, after Randy officially retires to take a job behind the deli counter at the supermarket, that is so telling of his emotional journey that it doesn’t even matter that you already know how it's going to end.
Perhaps even better than Rourke’s scenes outside of the ring are his scenes inside of them. The wrestling sequences make for some of the best moments in the film, and if you didn’t think wrestling was real going in, well, you’ll definitely have a better appreciation for it when you leave. Aronofsky delivers a candid behind-the-scenes look at the independent circuit (from match staging to razor cutting), and just when you think he’s going to spare you the bloody details of a brutal hardcore match involving staple guns and barbed wire, he goes back to show how all of the different injuries were incurred. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, but it’s necessary in attaining the level of realism that the film constantly strives to achieve.
Unfortunately, just like Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” the film is never as strong as the performance of its lead actor. That isn’t to say that “The Wrestler” isn’t any good, but between the disappointing use of its supporting cast (namely Evan Rachel Wood, who’s wasted in the underdeveloped daughter subplot) and the long-winded second act, the film doesn’t quite live up to the hype in the same way as Rourke’s performance. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see Aronofsky stepping out of his comfort zone in order to do something a little more conventional, and though he probably won’t be rewarded for his efforts, it was a risk that will pay dividends in the future.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
Much like the movie itself, the bonus material for “The Wrestler” may look small, but it packs quite a wallop. Along with an intimate making-of featurette (“Within the Ring”) that feels more like a mini documentary than the usual EPK, the Blu-ray release also includes a “Wrestler Round Table” with Diamond Dallas Page, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Lex Luger, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, and Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, and a Bruce Springsteen music video. Fans of Darren Aronofsky will also get a kick out of the bookcases that appear behind the interviewees in “Within the Ring” as they contain a few titles that the director never got a chance to make, including “Watchmen” and “Lone Wolf and Cub.” And with Zach Snyder recently adapting the former, here’s hoping the latter isn’t completely dead in the water.