As a fan of professional wrestling myself, I've always had very little patience for the people who deride so-called "sports-entertainment" as being "fake." Scripted, or pre-determined? Absolutely. Cartoonish and over-the-top at times? Without a doubt. But fake? Not a chance.
Although I've never been in the ring myself, I know enough about what goes on behind the scenes, to know that not only is the year-long "season" in pro-wrestling one where even the top guys work more than 300 days a year, but that they also get legitimately hurt doing what they do.
The scars are not just physical, but emotional as well. The moves may be choreographed, but those chair shots to the head, and bumps through tables and worse are real — as are the broken bones, spilled blood, and often permanently damaged lives. The high mortality rate within the "sport" confirms, at least in part, that life isn't always a cakewalk for these guys — especially once the lights have dimmed for good.
Take the art of blading or "gigging," for example. This is where a wrestler will produce real blood — or "color" as it's sometimes called in the wrestling business — by cutting into his forehead with a carefully concealed razor blade, when its called for following one of his bumps during a particularly crazy looking spot in the ring.
Fifteen minutes into The Wrestler, director Darren Aronofsky's remarkable new film about a down-on-his-luck wrestler, Mickey Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson "gigs" himself pretty good following a hard bump off the turnbuckle. The fact that Rourke does the stunt for real, without any Hollywood trickery involved, tells you right there that Aronofsky is aiming for a gritty, realistic feel with this movie.
To further make this point, Aronofsky uses several real-life wrestlers in the film, including names like Ron "The Truth" Killings and Ernest "The Cat" Miller — who does a great job as "The Ram's" favorite opponent, The Ayatollah. Rourke was also trained for his pro-wrestling stunts in the film by Afa, one-half of the legendary Wild Samoans tag team.
Aronofsky also mixes the story with real-life scenes from some of the better-known wrestling promotions on the indie circuit. This includes the brutal hardcore action — we're talking barbwire, breaking glass, and staple guns to the forehead here — of promotions like CZW. Here again, Rourke rises to the occasion like a champ, taking several staple gun shots to his body, after his character Randy "The Ram" Robinson takes a desperation match where he nearly kills himself in the ring with a guy called Necro-Butcher, whose specialty is weapons in the ring.
Rourke, by the way, is nothing short of amazing in this movie. He deserved every bit of his recent Golden Globe win, and should take home an Oscar for it as well. In a role somewhat paralleling his real-life story as an actor, Rourke's portrayal of the beaten-up, broken-down shell of a former pro-wrestling great trying to recapture the glory days is both haunting and heartbreaking.
With his years of filling arenas long behind him, "The Ram" now lives in a trailer park and continues to eek out a living wrestling indie shows at armories and VFW halls before crowds of maybe a thousand people a night.
Sometimes he gets paid, sometimes not. After taking the hardcore CZW match in order to avoid eviction from the trailer park, "The Ram" collapses backstage, and wakes up in a hospital bed to learn he nearly died from a heart attack. He also learns that if he wants to continue living, he has to give up wrestling.
In a sub-plot that eerily mirrors the real-life story of former WWE/WCW star Jake "The Snake" Roberts, Robinson attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). He also takes a day job "selling his meat to middle-aged housewives" at the corner deli, while attempting to stoke the fires of romance with local stripper Cassidy (Marissa Tomei, who by the way has never looked hotter).
Just when things appear to be going right for Robinson, it all falls apart. In one night, the stripper dumps him, causing him to go on a sex-and-drugs-fueled bender. This in turn causes him to miss a crucial reunion dinner date with the daughter. After he quits his job, this ultimately leads him back to the ring for one last hurrah, a possible career-reviving rematch with his arch-foe The Ayatollah.
Besides all of the action and realism both backstage and in the ring that lends this film its wrestling legitimacy, there are several scenes here that are likely to have you reaching for your hanky. When Rourke tells his daughter with tears in his eyes "please don't hate me," for example, all of the muscles in the world can't mask the tender, and broken heart that lies just underneath. The in-ring speech at the big rematch where he tells the crowd that "the only place I ever get hurt is out there" is also a real tear-jerker.
Although this is a pretty heavy story, there's also some humor too — such as when Ram and Cassidy recall their favorite eighties music (besides the Bruce Springsteen title song, there's lots of hair-metal in the soundtrack) until "that pussy Cobain came along and ruined everything." Great stuff.
I watched this movie with James, a buddy of mine who also happens to be a former pro-wrestler himself. He was really the only logical choice. Frame for frame, minute for minute, James confirmed the realism of everything here from the backstage scenes to the in-ring spots, bumps — even the "gigging." Ever the wrestling guy, when it was over James reviewed it the same way he might call a match.
He called it as "an epic which only lacks one thing — a clean finish." Without spoiling the ending, I'd have to agree with his assessment. Just go see it.