Mickey Rourke triumphantly returns to the screen in the best role he's played since… Marv in Sin City (2005)? Well, that wasn't so long ago. Yet it seems that every time Rourke continues to impress us with a tour-de-force performance, as he does in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, he is hailed as the "Comeback Kid," when in fact, he's never gone anywhere.
One look at his filmography confirms this, as he has had at least one film, if not more, released every year since his debut in 1979, except for the years 1993 and 2007. True, they frequently aren't movies you would see in the year-end top ten lists. But like Marlon Brando, the quirky and mumbling Rourke is a performer who never fails to fascinate in any number of variations on the tough guy persona he usually imbues with the soul of a child.
In The Wrestler, he plays fading superstar Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a veteran of the sport which, though filled with showboat antics, may actually be more punishing than similar gladiatorial displays out there. Robinson moves through his humble life, struggling to collect his cut of the gate; having trouble making ends meet; and deluding himself into thinking he is actually connecting with a stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), whom he frequents. Oblivious to the destructive toll the matches take on his aging body, it is only after a particularly brutal rematch with the Ayatollah (Ernest Miller) that he gets a warning sign. Suffering a major heart attack, he is forced to retire, and it is then that we see what few prospects Robinson has. He lives alone in a trailer park. He has no family save for his now grown daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who won't talk to him. Is it only a matter of time before he has to risk returning to the ring?
Aronofsky's skill as a storyteller continues to grow. Gone is the film school vibe of his first film, Pi (1998). The visual gimmickry of his overrated Requiem for a Dream (2000) is harnessed to better use here, as in one scene where he crosscuts between Robinson as he prepares for a match, and Cassidy psyching herself up for her next dance. Both self-destructively chase down the money no matter what the physical or psychological cost to each. The Wrestler expands on the promise the director displayed in the misunderstood The Fountain (2006). Like in that film, Robinson risks all to sustain the connection to someone he loves, despite the inevitability of his self-destruction in doing so. But here the emotional core is not lost in the sci-fi pyrotechnics of the earlier film.
The Wrestler is a variation on the film noir subgenre, the fight movie, which only serves to underscore the parallels between Robinson and Rourke. A rising star in the eighties, Rourke's bad decisions, like interrupting his career to venture into the world of boxing, interrupted his ascent. Noxious behavior in his personal life, which included arrests for spousal abuse and a DUI, further illustrate his penchant for masochism. His newfound vigor in returning to acting is evident in his portrayal of Robinson's climactic attempt to recapture the glory he once garnered in the ring.
Rourke's iconic performance is both powerful and touching. Like Brando, who was always ill at ease with his handsome looks, Rourke has shown signs of the same. The onetime pretty boy now has a face scarred by reconstructive surgeries after the beatings inflicted in boxing. And Robinson's bloodied visage evokes previous roles in which Rourke has taken safe harbor, away from his looks, like Marv in Sin City, or John Sedley in Johnny Handsome (1989). These ugly bruisers both hid a secret, child-like soul, the same way Robinson does. In one scene, Robinson's loneliness prompts him to step outside his trailer home, and invite a neighbor kid to play a wrestling game on an outdated Nintendo. When the child loses and politely decides to leave, Robinson is embarrassed that not even a rematch can entice the boy to stay.
The Wrestler should go down as one of this actor's landmark roles, but don't call it a comeback. He's always been around, even if we haven't always been looking.
Darren Aronofsky will discuss The Wrestler at 1:30 p.m., Saturday, October 11, at the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, located on the tenth floor of the Samuel B. and David Rose Building, 70 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, New York, 10023; $16
The Wrestler is the closing night film at the 46th New York Film Festival, and is playing at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, October 12, at the Avery Fisher Hall, 70 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, New York, 10023; $40