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.