Saturday, January 24, 2009

Movie Review: "The Wrestler" Is Simply Powerful

by Clarence Yu
The Wrestler tells the story of Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a professional wrestler 20 years from the peak of his career in the 1980s. Once famous the world over (think Hulk Hogan), he is now reduced to participating in independently staged matches and holding a part-time job to eke out a living.

He is estranged from his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), and the only person he can confide in is an aging stripper named Cassidy (Oscar winner Marisa Tomei) who is also past her prime. Unlike Randy, who is living in the past, Cassidy has a firmer grip on reality and is looking to finish her career as she realizes that she cannot sustain her job on her fading looks. Randy, however, is stuck in the past, reliving his glory days by taking steroids to sustain his aging body, and following a regimen that includes pumping iron and tanning himself in a salon to keep up appearances.

A shot at his former glory, a re-match with his former nemesis "The Ayatollah," is derailed by a heart attack, forcing Randy to stop wrestling, instead taking up a full-time job at a deli counter. He faces issues of his own mortality and tries to patch things up with his daughter while attempting to pursue a romance with Cassidy. Things not being so perfect for him, he defies all logic and resumes his match with his former rival in the face of tremendous risk.
Mickey Rourke delivers a powerful performance as "The Ram" — his Frankenstein-like appearance and over-muscled physique belies the childlike tenderness and warmth of the character; the dreary world-weariness, confusion, and emotional pain he projects on screen is so real that it almost seems that he has lived the role. Best known for his role in the erotic drama 9½ Weeks and his critical acclaim as a cool, suave leading man in the 1980s, he completely disappeared from public view to pursue a career in boxing. The last time I saw him in a movie was opposite Don Johnson in Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (which despite its tackiness was still entertaining). In playing "The Ram," a role completely against his conventional eccentric type, many have proclaimed this to be Mickey Rourke's comeback, and I definitely agree with this view.

There are just so many good things to say about this film that it completely outweighs its relatively few faults. While the plot is quite simple and has its share of loopholes (there is no emotional closure for the Wood and Tomei characters), the performances by Rourke and Tomei put the movie past this hurdle and keep the viewers glued throughout. Director Darren Aronofsky employs visual surprise to set the tone and pace of the movie. The physicality of Rourke and Tomei is such a sight to see. Tomei lives up to her Oscar-caliber acting (My Cousin Vinny) in her portrayal of Cassidy — go to any sleazy strip club and you will know what I mean by this. Superb cut and paste frame editing, and close, tight camera shots give the movie a semi-documentary feel, making the fine performances seem even more real. Some might expect a Rocky-esque ending, but simply put, there is no hook in this film.

Fans of wrestling will find delight here as the bloodsport aspect of wrestling is revealed with such realism. Those not familiar with wrestling culture will be thoroughly educated. Add to this a stellar soundtrack consisting of classic '80s glam rock gems and an original song by Bruce Springsteen and you've got one hell of a rough and touching movie. This is one you should not miss.

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