This is by far one of the best films of 2008. It certainly makes my top 10. Mickey Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, who I describe as a mix of the real-life Hulk Hogan and the fictional Rocky Balboa.
Robinson is a professional wrestler, 20 years past his prime. There are many athletes who become too old, too burned out, or too injured to keep on playing. Robinson is all those things. Yet, he refuses to quit. He refuses to let go and it's literally destroying him and his relationships.
The question becomes why. Why does he refuse to let go? Director Darron Aronofsky (Pi and Requiem for a Dream) explores brilliantly the answer to that, and he does so in a way that allows Rourke to shine. There is not a scene in this film that doesn't possess Rourke. He dominates the screen and by the end body slams the audience into submission.
I give Rourke the Best Actor Oscar for this performance, and, strangely enough, I give it to him for the same reasons that I give Michelle Williams the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in the independent film Wendy and Lucy. Rourke's character is lonely and desperate, and the loneliness and desperation come through so profoundly, as to make you weep inside.
Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei co-stars as Cassidy, an aging stripper from Jersey to whom Rourke's character frequently goes for comfort and company. She represents an aspect of his character. She's in fact a kind of female reflection of him.
You see on the surface that both are performers past their peak. However, their parallels don't become fully evident until toward the end when you see them do two similar things. One of which is both stop and take a look at their surroundings and don't like what they see.
It's the moment when reality really smacks the pair in the face. Rourke's Randy Robinson particularly is smacked. Robinson is a man trying to hold onto a glory that has long faded. Aronofsky establishes this so powerfully and so immediately in the opening reel.
A decoupage of posters and newspaper clippings slide across the frame. Aronofsky then cuts to a worn out Robinson, his back to the camera, slouching down in a fold-up chair. There's the image and then the reality. An action figure of Robinson adorns his cargo van dashboard. Yet, he comes home to find himself locked out his trailer, and, before going to bed in his van, he has to take his hearing aid out his ear.
There's the image and then the reality. Robinson tries to keep his body as pumped and buff as his counterparts half his age. He has a whole beauty regimen that includes hair-styling and artificial tanning. He even scores the occasional steroids, as well as a host of other drugs. Yet, all the cosmetics in the world won't cover up sagging facial features and his many battle scars, including the one left as a result of a myocardial infarction.
Aronofsky illustrates that battle between image and reality in several of the wrestling matches. In some instances, he's pulling back the curtain, and revealing the tricks of the trade and how much of wrestling is choreographed phoniness. Yet, Aronofsky cleverly depicts that even that is just an image and the reality is not all of wrestling is fake. Aronofsky shows us a brutal and bloody, staple gun and barbed wire fight that is in no way false, as it requires real stitches afterward.
It's funny, but, at one point, Marisa Tomei's character references The Passion of the Christ (2004). She points out all the torture Christ endured in that movie, and yet, he kept taking it. Noticing all the wounds on Robinson, she wonders if there aren't that many similarities. Robinson doesn't nearly have as much of a burden as Christ but the comparison makes for a very interesting metaphor.
What leads Robinson to his problems is that he focuses too much energy on trying to maintain the image rather than deal with the reality. In order to make ends meet, Robinson takes a job cutting meat. From wanting his nametag to reflect his stage name, it's all he can do to try to ensure his image is left safely intact, as it becomes his only identity.
Aronofsky even adds sound cues of cheering crowds from a wrestling match onto the soundtrack, as Robinson is about to step foot, not in a ring but up to a deli counter. It's an image, a dream almost, of which Robinson can't let go, and we feel that.
It's all in large part due to Rourke's stellar work here. He entertains. He's fun. He's charming. Ultimately, he does a pile driver straight to your heart. Bravo!
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for violence, sexuality and drug use
Running Time: 1 hr. and 49 mins.