The Wrestler Review

Every so often, a role comes along which is so perfect for an actor that it seems they must have been born to play it. Such a role allows even the most mediocre talent to have a shining moment in an otherwise undistinguished career. Mickey Rourke couldn’t be described as even slightly mediocre, having enlivened many unworthy films with his presence but his career in the past fifteen years has been the very definition of undistinguished. The Wrestler changes all that and allows Rourke to demonstrate that, given the right material, he can be a very fine actor and, perhaps just as importantly, a great movie star.

Randy “The Ram” Robinson was once big news in the mainstream wrestling scene, complete with his own video game and toy figure. But that was twenty years ago and he’s now reduced to working in a supermarket and spending his weekends taking part in independent wrestling bouts which take place in local gymnasiums. Wrestling is killing Randy but he can’t find a life outside the ring, despite a tentative relationship with lap dancer Cassidy (Tomei) and a desire to connect with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Wood). Despite a heart attack, a twentieth anniversary bout with his arch-enemy “The Ayatollah” seems like it might give him another shot at the spotlight and Randy decides, after considerable soul-searching, to take up the opportunity.

Randy is a wonderful character whose violent trade – and violent it is revealed to be, no matter whether or not they are simply “telling stories” in the ring – masks a genuinely good heart and a need to be loved. Public affection once filled this need but is now wearing thin and his attempts to reach out to those around him are heartbreaking because we know how much they mean to him and what he stands to lose if they fail. Perhaps realising that this is his own last chance to make things right, Mickey Rourke seizes the role with both hands and doesn’t let go until Randy is a living, breathing person in whom we become thoroughly emotionally invested. Rourke has done great work before – I point you particularly to Johnny Handsome and his cameo in The Rainmaker which is like a little master-class in scene stealing – but he’s never been as charismatic and confident as he is here. In the past, his assurance has come over as cockiness but here it’s very winning. If there was a better performance by an actor last year in a major American film, I must have missed it and I have no doubt that Rourke’s Oscar was unjustly awarded elsewhere.

The Wrestler is a great showcase for a star but it isn’t a great movie. The material from which the plot is constructed has worn thin over the years and no new ways have been found of looking at it. Surrounding Randy The Ram is a collection of familiar characters, none more so than the stripper with a heart of gold and the alienated daughter who never got enough attention from her absentee father. Darren Aronofsky trudges through the familiar paces with genuine affection and a decent enough pace but he can’t renew them and the result is something like an R-rated version of Stallone’s Rocky Balboa. It has to be said that the excellent performances from Evan Rachel Wood and Marisa Tomei do a lot to keep the film on the rails and Tomei is particularly good, radiating likeability in a way which makes you wonder why she doesn’t get better material. The clichés in the plot come right on cue; you could set your watch by scenes such as Randy and his girlfriend falling out and the attempted familial reconciliation which starts promisingly but goes wrong. This continues right up until the final scenes which try to have it both ways in a manner which is oddly reminiscent of Thelma and Louise.

But along the way, Aronofsky injects small grace notes which mark the film out from the normal run of sporting “last chance” movies. The use of the New Jersey locations as a faded glory lit by occasional shafts of magic light is inspired and there’s a lovely, poignant scene in an old dance hall between Rourke and Wood which has beautiful, subtle shades of regret. I particularly liked the appearances by real wrestlers, all of whom come across as thoroughly decent chaps whose job is just that and nothing remotely personal – they all know what parts they are expected to play, no matter how violent.

On this note, it would be unfair not to acknowledge the brilliance of the fight scenes which are relatively few in number but are brutal, visceral and sometimes terrifying. There’s one which is set during an underground event which is as unwatchable vicious as anything I’ve seen in a ‘15’ rated film and memorably involves a staple gun and a window pane. But the violence is never gratuitous or exploitative. It’s clear that Aronofsky wants to go behind the myths that the pain is faked and that no-one gets hurt and explain that these are real, vulnerable flesh and blood people in the ring. If some parts of the film don’t quite ring true, whenever we’re in the middle of the wrestling bouts, it’s totally believable.

The Disc

Optimum’s DVD of The Wrestler offers a fine transfer of the film and minimal but interesting extra features. The disc is encoded for Region 2

The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 format and has been anamorphically enhanced. It was shot in Super-16 and the consequence is a deliberately grainy and somewhat seedy edge to the image. The colours throughout are generally subdued but quite vivid in the ring and the level of detail is pleasing.

There are two soundtrack options. The obvious choice is the Dolby Digital 5.1 track which is exceptionally good. The ambience of the ring is startlingly vivid from the start and the dialogue, occasionally mumbled, is usually very clear. The music also comes across well. The Dolby Digital 2.0 option is quite acceptable but obviously lacks the atmosphere of the 5.1 mix.

The main bonus feature is “Within the Ring”, an interesting forty-two minute documentary about the making of the film which contains a lot of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the director and some of his colleagues. The DP, Maryse Alberti, is a particularly interesting interviewee in terms of the gritty, somewhat “nouvelle vague” look of the film. Mickey Rourke is conspicuous by his absence but we catch up with him in a fifteen minute interview which is broken up into questions and answers. Rourke is honest and funny and is obviously under no illusions about his past and the state of his career. He’s clearly passionate about the film and the character and you come away from this interview genuinely liking him.

In addition to these lengthier pieces we also get the original theatrical trailer. Sadly, the music video for the excellent theme song by Bruce Springsteen, which was on the US disc, isn’t present here – the song can be found as the last track on Springsteen’s album Working on a Dream.

8 out of 10
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