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Mickey Rourke comes back in The Wrestler 

Requiem for a grappler

click to enlarge Mickey Rourke takes a flying leap. - PHOTO BY NIKO TAVERNISE/ FOX SEARCHLIGHT

The Wrestler opens Friday in select theaters

In The Wrestler, a down-and-out bum grasps for one more shot at glory.

But the small but significant difference between Darren Aronofsky's new film and similarly situated movies such as The Champ, Rocky and Cinderella Man is that boxing commands respect, while professional wrestling remains déclassé. The sport of Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali may be the sweet science, but the most prevalent remark made about pro wrestling is "You know it's fake." Some call the spectacle a soap opera for men, but a better label is performance art. The stagecraft in pro wrestling is predetermined, and the characters and storylines are written and choreographed for the viewers' pleasure.

There is another vocation that also fits this description: acting.

The Wrestler is a character study of an aging grappler, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, played with raw authenticity by Mickey Rourke. However, under Aronofsky's brilliant direction, the film itself becomes its own kind of performance art with a connecting thread that weaves the subject matter, plot, characters and actors into a seamless tapestry.

Aronofsky's prestige as a director was cemented after the release of his 2000 tour de force, Requiem for a Dream. For The Wrestler, Aronofsky dials back his trademark visual flourishes for a gritty depiction of loss: of youth, fame, family and, yes, dreams. Once the most popular wrestler in the country, Randy is now a relic living in near-poverty who spends his work week stocking shelves at a grocery store in his rural Jersey hometown. Whereas he once fought before sold-out audiences in Madison Square Garden, he now spends his weekends scrapping for scratch at local armories and high school gyms.

click to enlarge Marisa Tomei and Mickey Rourke - PHOTO BY NIKO TAVERNISE/ FOX SEARCHLIGHT

After an especially brutal match accompanied by glass shards, staples and barbed wire, he suffers a heart attack that forces him to hang up his tights and cancel an upcoming rematch against his former Madison Square Garden foe, the Ayatollah (aka "Bob," a used car salesman). Facing a new reality, Randy attempts to advance his relationship with Cassidy, a local stripper (Marisa Tomei), and reconnect with Stephanie, his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood).

The real-life parallels between character and actor are striking and likely intentional. Aronofsky risked cancellation of this film with his insistence on casting Rourke, because producers and financiers were reluctant to invest in the notoriously tempestuous and evidently washed-up actor. As it turns out, Rourke's face bears the scars of decades of real-life amateur boxing, botched plastic surgeries and hard living, a mask that fits perfectly for his character's years of ring injuries and steroid abuse. Like Randy, this is Rourke's attempt to recapture faded glory, and the end result is sensational. Rourke executes extremely physical wrestling scenes—no stunt work here, even when his wrestler must cut himself to draw blood during a fight—with moments of charm, sensitivity and vulnerability.

Fact meets thinly veiled fiction throughout The Wrestler: Wood has been quoted as saying her role was a kind of "paid therapy" that led her to reconnect with her father, Raleigh actor Ira David Wood III. But the best collision of fiction and reality occurs in a bar, when the pall over Randy's and Cassidy's lives is temporarily lifted to the strains of Ratt's "Round and Round" playing on the jukebox. "Fuckin' '80s man, best shit ever!," exclaims Cassidy. "Bet'chr ass man," says Randy. "Then that Cobain pussy had to come around and ruin it all. ... I'll tell you something, I hate the fuckin' '90s."

The film's finale manages to be both tragic and inspirational, hitting you like a "Ram Jam" to the solar plexus. Whether you call it the rebirth of Rourke or Requiem for the '80s, The Wrestler has all the right moves. "They don't make 'em like they used to," laments Randy. Bet'chr ass, man.

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