Film Review: The Wrestler

15 Jan

Typical. You wait for a film about a once famous American sportsman now well past his prime, struggling to reconcile previous success with the reality of being a normal Joe, and two come along at once…well a couple of years apart, but who’s counting?

As The Wrestler makes it’s way into UK cinemas this week I’m reminded of Sylvester Stallone’s last(?) hurrah as Rocky Balboa in 2006, a film that saw our hero in a reflective mood as he wandered his native Chicago and took a chance on love. I enjoyed the film’s tone and thought Stallone’s performance was pitch perfect, just not many people seemed to agree.

That was then and this is now. Mickey Rourke returns to our screens in his movie comeback that isn’t quite the comeback we keep getting told it is – did nobody watch Sin City? – and he’s something special.

With his face now resembling a bizarre hybrid of Sly Stallone and Vincent out of Beauty and the Beast, this is a man who has been there, done it and had the t-shirt printed up and sold at the front door of the wrestling arena for 25 bucks a piece. Pain, sweat and blood are written on his face while his voice sounds like he drinks gravel for breakfast.

So impressive is Rourke’s performance that I I’ve forgotten to detail the plot so, for traditions sake, I’ll give a brief overview: Randy “The Ram” Robinson is an ageing wrestler whose heyday was in the 80s and who is now reduced to taking his act around New Jersey for the fans who still pay to see him. Following a heart attack, Randy revisits his past while trying to figure out his present, and his future.

Put like that, the film doesn’t sound very interesting, but this isn’t a movie that worries itself with being flashy or clever. Some of the most interesting scenes are the most boring ones, such as Randy pulling his little trolley behind him into a new venue or getting his hair done at the local salon.

Director Darren Aronofsky is clearly in love with his leading man and the tale he’s telling, refusing to let his flourishes get in the way of Rourke’s performance.

The most interesting scene in the movie for me comes as Randy makes his way through the labyrinthine corridors of the supermarket where he works as he heads out to his latest “performance”: the selling of ham to the customers. The soundtrack gets tricksy for one of the only times as a chanting crowd can be heard beckoning on their hero, only to have him push through the plastic doors into the harsh light of the store.

Also of note is the always watchable Marisa Tomei (even better here than she was in 2007’s underrated gem, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) who looks fantastic and is a fine match for Rourke.

This may not have the same emotional kick as Rocky Balboa but it treads the same ground and does it well. Rourke almost seems to have typecast himself with this one role and it’ll be interesting to see if he can continue to make such high quality fare over the next few years.

I’d be interested to know how many wrestling fans will go to see this expecting endless scenes of the sport only to find a touching story of a man trying to make amends with his daughter instead. I hope they’ll be as impressed as I was.

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