No Holds Barred

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"The '90s fuckin' sucked," wheezes Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, slyly acknowledging the baggage weighing heavily not just upon his character--a washed-up has-been rassler named Randy "the Ram" Robinson--but also upon Rourke himself. It's impossible to imagine any other actor so perfectly embodying this role, a self-described "broken down piece of meat"--battered and damaged but still aching for a comeback.

If anybody knows how much the '90s sucked, it's Mickey Rourke. He burst onto the scene more than 20 years ago with all the electricity and playfulness of a young Brando, revered by his fellow actors and worshipped by movie fans. He wasted no time throwing it all away in a flame-out of tabloid tantrums, sleazy sex flicks and eventually an ill-advised boxing career that pummeled that handsome, expressive face into a pulp. Rourke rendered himself not just unemployable in Hollywood for his bad-boy behavior, but also almost unrecognizable, thanks to plastic surgery.

But if you caught Rourke's small roles in The Pledge or Sin City, it's obvious he's still one hell of an actor, and The Wrestler isn't just a comeback; it's a resurrection.

Randy the Ram unloads trucks at a supermarket all week, and then spends his weekends in tights at American Legion halls, reliving the good old days and plotting suplexes with equally wobbly and almost-crippled former legends. The screenplay, by former Onion Editor Robert D. Siegel, isn't exactly heavy on plot. The film is steeped in behavior, with long passages of Rourke going about his day-to-day business in a declining Jersey-swamp milieu.

Rourke's spectacularly ruined face peers out from beneath a peroxided mane--and there's a gentle twinkle in his eyes. Director Darren Aronofsky lavishes so much attention on the Ram's countless scars and banged-up body, it's wise that one of the characters makes a Passion of the Christ joke early on, before the audience is able to crack one of its own.

The Wrestler

A Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Opens Fri., Jan. 9

Faced with a health crisis, Randy's forced to consider retirement, and that's when the movie begins questioning how we define ourselves. If a man is what he does for a living, who does he become when he can't do that anymore? The Ram tentatively tries to muster an existence beyond the mat, attempting to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood.) He gets a glimpse of ordinary life, working a couple of shifts behind the deli counter. (In all honesty, I could've watched Rourke riff with these customers for hours.)

Only Cassidy seems to understand. Brilliantly played by Marisa Tomei, Randy's favorite stripper is secretly a single mom, and the two foster a friendship outside the sleazy club's VIP room. Tomei's performance is startling. She's able to almost imperceptibly shift her persona according to her surroundings--she's far more vulnerable and exposed when her clothes are on. Just like the Ram, Cassidy's getting too old to make a living off her body anymore, and Aronofsky quietly underlines their similarities with matching camera movements whenever these two are "at work."

Aronofsky made his name as a swaggering young showboat prone either to pulverizing his audience (Requiem for a Dream) or boring them to tears with bombastic pseudo-religious nonsense (The Fountain). There's nothing in his previous work to suggest he's even interested in the low-key humanism and gentle affection of The Wrestler. Here at last is a real sequel to the original Rocky, suffused with quiet desperation, squalid backdrops and earthy humor.

Even if it doesn't end the way you want it to, The Wrestler ends the way it should, with a hauntingly perfect final shot, just before the heartbreaking Bruce Springsteen song kicks in over the closing credits.

Welcome back, Mickey. It's been too long.

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