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Movie Review: The Wrestler

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Always a good sign, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about The Wrestler. It is an extraordinary showcase for Micky Rourke, an actor who has been missing in action for so long and who has gone through such drastic changes that he may as well be brand new.

Rourke’s return to boxing in 1991 hasn’t been kind to him. Or rather it hasn’t been kind to his appearance. He looks like someone who’s spent 15 years as a human punching bag in a second-rate gym. But, in a blessed twist of fate, all those years of abuse have paid-off with one of the most remarkable movie transformations in history.

Without the aid of make-up, Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” looks like he walked right out of Beauty and the Beast. More importantly, Rourke’s life as a fighter has lent him the perfect physique, the perfect jagged edges and scars, and the perfect insight to play a road-torn wrestler.

I imagine the backstage antics – and pain – as well as the drugs and groupies and tiny venues stocked with folding metal chairs are all very familiar to Rourke. I imagine he experienced depressingly lonely autograph signings as well.

The movie’s centerpiece is an agonizing wrestling match involving broken glass and barbed wire and a table fork – and lots of blood and pain and writhing. It’s hard to watch but never gratuitous, always with a point. It leads to a wake-up call and much of the movie’s drama revolves around how Randy “The Ram” will respond. Will he heed the call? Or will he slam the phone back on the cradle?

My memories of The Wrestler don’t linger on blood and suffering though, as they well could have. Instead, I fondly recall a gallery of carefully etched character moments.

Preparing for a match, “The Ram” sits and has his hair tinted and groomed and the moment holds the charm of Disney’s Beast being prepped for the ballroom. The scene is like the Cowardly Lion being groomed to see The Wizard.

Randy, no longer “the Ram,” goes to work in a deli and pensively enters this new arena as if another fight is waiting. We follow him from the dressing room along a maze of hallways and through the kitchen like Jake La Motta journeying to the ring in Raging Bull – complete with the din of anxious fans rising on the soundtrack.

Then we feel Randy’s relief as he transforms the deli into a playground, even telling a customer to “go deep” as he sends a container of potato salad spiraling through the air into his basket. It’s the surprise of seeing such a bruiser at play that sticks in the memory, an effect made all the more charming by the hairnet and name tag – that reads “Robin” – he is forced to wear.

Randy’s best friend is Cassidy, a stripper played wonderfully by Marissa Tomei. He visits her club often, but never for sexual stimulation. The club becomes his refuge and she his one true confidant. As with the rest of the movie, expectations of such a macho character are thwarted. Randy is thrilled to learn Cassidy has a child, even giving the boy a “Ram” action figure as a gift.

Randy refers to himself as a “broken-down piece of meat that deserves to be alone.” The triumph of The Wrestler is that we agree that he is a broken-down piece of meat and yet are saddened to imagine him alone and unhappy. It’s a terrific movie.

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