Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Mickey!
Was the elfin Toni Basil singing about Mickey Rourke, handsome, talented bastard that he was? Probably not, but after his terrifically understated performance in the 1981 classic Body Heat as a reluctant advice-giving arsonist I guess it’s possible. At that point everything lay before this charismatic dude but, boy, when it came to quality did he mess up the rest of the decade. Rumble Fish, Pope of Greenwich Village and Homeboy were awful. Barfly was OK, Angel Heart, Year of the Dragon and Prayer for the Dying were watchable nonsense while Nine and a Half Weeks, the flick that really put his ice cube-dripping ass on the map, was yet more watchable nonsense. Not long after came sexy crap like Wild Orchid, the derided Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, and a Basinger-free sequel to Weeks resulting in Rourke sliding into irrelevance during the 90s.
Worse, those chiseled good looks not only faded in the new century but got replaced by something that The Thing’s special effects wiz Rob Bottin might have cooked up. No matter, because Rourke’s fucked fizzog provided the perfect point to work behind when it came to portraying a battered, down on his luck good guy in Aronofsky’s acclaimed psychological drama.
He’s Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, a wrestler who achieved fame in the 80s. Unfortunately, it’s now more than two decades later and he’s still plugging away, despite having a body held together by scar tissue, tape, padding, painkillers, stitches, a hearing aid and sheer willpower. His voice is just as battered. This guy doesn’t so much speak as issue a rumbling noise when wishing to communicate. And no wonder he’s in such terrible shape given that a typical match involves being belted over the head with a metal chair or shredded with barbed wire, glass and cutlery.
Sometimes he even has to endure the prolonged attention of a staple gun. The fights might be fake (with the moves and outcome decided beforehand) but the debilitating injuries are horrifyingly real. Indeed, he’s the sort of guy who will smuggle a razorblade into the ring to use on himself. It’s a demented way to go through life, but Randy is not bitter or resentful. On the contrary, wrestling is his identity. For when he arrives backstage covered in blood to be told “That was fucking insane, man” he knows he’s still living on some sort of rarefied edge.
Randy is a man that can’t let go. He needs the adrenaline rush and the life-affirming roar of the crowd. He might have a flying blonde mane but he’s no Garbo. He’s never gonna concentrate on his hated supermarket job instead, especially as the fans serve as his surrogate family. Christ, not even a heart attack will stop this ‘living, breathing fuck-up’ clambering back into the ring, but such a traumatic event does give him the chance to take stock and try to work on other areas of his life.
Apart from the sensational Rourke, The Wrestler’s great strength is its vivid and affectionate portrait of professional wrestling. These men share a pronounced camaraderie, as well as a clear understanding that defeat isn’t defeat but a contribution to the spectacle. Entertainment is king and they are happy to serve, even if that means ending up inside a metal dustbin while being battered with a punter’s false leg. Honestly, trying to understand the psychology behind this masochistic madness is a real brain stretcher. Shit, I dunno, maybe they get high on the pain. Maybe some are half in love with death.
Whatever the case, the Oscar-nominated Rourke is superb, clearly doing his own stunts and oozing conviction whether groggily coming around in a hospital bed, trying to romance an aging stripper, dancing with his estranged daughter in an abandoned building or doing some sort of Tom Cruise Cocktail impersonation behind a deli counter. He’s a heartbreaker, although there isn’t an ounce of mush to be found. Just watch him indicate anywhere but the ring before muttering: “The only place I get hurt is out there.”
It might have taken the best part of thirty years but Rourke finally got to star in a flick of sheer bloody quality while delivering the performance he was always capable of.
Dave Franklin’s movie book Go Fuck an Iceberg! is available from Amazon and other outlets.