In Barry Levinson’s 1982 picture ‘Diner’, there is a scene in which Mickey Rourke, as Boogie, is at the local dance. Against a backdrop of mealy-mouthed teenagers twisting in a music hall, he talks with a dark haired girl about who she’s leaving with. Quietly, lying with a half-smile, he tells her he can’t take her home: ‘I go to law school now … I only come here ‘cause I appreciate the fine music.’
From 1982 onwards Rourke starred in a number of films that were to cement his status as the disaffected, nonchalant poster boy of the decade. In ‘Rumble Fish’ a year later, he played Matt Dillon’s handsome older brother — the neighbourhood motorcycle tough who could hustle and bust heads better than anyone in town.
In 1989 it was rumoured that he had real sex with Jacqueline Bisset in the erotic ‘Wild Orchid’, a film so critically derided that, afterwards, he announced his return to the world of professional boxing. In the 1980s, Rourke was shaped in Brando’s mould: he played Henry Chinaski in ‘Barfly’; he was a brawler, a drifter, a killer. For that one decade, Rourke was the real deal, in demand for the last time before the onset of a long period of wilderness.
Between then and now we’ve heard the name only rarely. The current media flurry which surrounds Darren Aronofsky’s ‘The Wrestler’ has been accompanied by more publicity than Rourke has seen in twenty years. The film is a study in disappointed dreams; an examination of the demise of what Bruce Springsteen — who wrote a new track for the movie — would call ‘glory days’.
Rourke plays Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, a moribund wrestling star living in a trailer with little to his name. Surrounded by remnants of his departed fame — cut-outs from wrestling magazines, tiny toys in his image — he continues to wrestle in town halls and rec-centres for small change. After suffering a heart attack after a match, he endeavours to retire and make a life for himself on the deli counter of a local supermarket.
Set in the grey and oppressive New Jersey suburbs, the plot progresses with all of the accepted trappings of a ‘sports-movie’. Randy’s love-interest, acted subtly and physically by the beautiful Marissa Tomei, is a single mother scared of committing to a life with an ailing wrestler. Ram tries to make things right with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), but fails when a post-match coke party keeps him up all night.
Aronofsky should be praised for maintaining a tone of severity – tinged with a very black humour — in a film where the wrestling-related absurdity of many of the scenes could easily have blemished any worthwhile insights into the characters themselves. The cinematography is small-scale and cropped, creating an atmosphere of seething claustrophobia. Whereas Aronofsky’s earlier work tends to seem callous and full of misery, ‘The Wrestler’ is a deeply humane portrait of a losing man, played honestly by an accomplished, veteran performer.