Sometimes a role seems so closely tailored to a public persona and private notoriety it becomes inseparable from that combined mythos less a demonstration of acting than an extension of what we already suspected about the actor. Errol Flynn both distinguished and humiliated himself with late-career portrayals of sodden louts. Marlon Brando appeared to be playing his own supremely weird-ass id in Last Tango in Paris (1972). Just last month, Jean-Claude Van Damme was oddly poignant portraying Belgium’s biggest movie star in JCVD.
Now there’s Mickey Rourke, grizzled survivor of various overchronicled on- and offscreen self-destructions, as an ex-champ dying figuratively and then some for one last glory-shot in The Wrestler. This is meta-celebrity cinema: Rourke’s character’s "comeback" is mirrored, and perhaps outshined, by the actor’s own.
Are you already oversaturated by human-interest features chronicling his rebound from childhood trauma, Carré Otis, spousal abuse charges, divorces, too many tattoos, being called "a human ashtray" (albeit by Kim Basinger), quitting acting for boxing, quitting boxing for acting, turning down exceptional parts (Kurt Russell’s in 2007’s Grindhouse, Bruce Willis’ in 1994’s Pulp Fiction, Scott Glenn’s in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs) but accepting direct-to-video flicks? Not to mention those articles detailing how he generally behaves like a horse’s ass? I sure am.
Even the brief "classic" Rourke era, when he had charisma to burn, saw every good movie (1982’s Diner, 1983’s Rumble Fish, 1984’s The Pope of Greenwich Village, 1987’s Barfly, and yes, even that same year’s Angel Heart) matched by at least one crapfest. (Recollect 1991’s Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man? Or the one where no joke he played St. Francis of Assisi?) By 1997 he was way off the A-list and, frankly, lookin’ weird (steroids? plastic surgery?) as the nemesis to JCVD and Dennis Rodman (!) in Double Team.
He was always of limited range, and perhaps of limited intelligence to deal with the initial exhalations of Brando-like greatness. He became another tragicomedic specimen of dignity-stripped celebrity, the kind that now usually ends up embarrassing himself further in "reality" shows alongside Stephen Baldwin and Brigitte Nielsen. To Rourke’s credit he resisted such humiliation bucks, though the gigs he took did little to rebuild his career until his role as beauty-loving-beast Marv in 2005’s noir fantasia Sin City.
The Wrestler is career salvage offered up on a silver platter. Rourke is Randy "The Ram" Robinson, reduced since his ’80s heyday to scraping for chump change in amateur matches at high school gymnasiums. These shows, in WWE fashion, might be somewhat choreographed and more-flash-than-gash, but they’re nonetheless punishing especially for a player past 50.
When a particularly brutal bout (encompassing Jackass-style grotesquerie like skin staple-gunning) leaves the Ram in need of heart bypass surgery, his wrestling days appear over. But he can’t quit yet, since he needs to prove something to the daughter he’s estranged (Evan Rachel Wood) and the aging stripper (Marisa Tomei) he’s wooing.
This being a Darren Aronofsky film, limited triumph of the human spirit can be expected. Yet it’s surprising how much formulaic Rocky-style sentiment the Requiem for a Dream (2000) director channels from Robert D. Siegel’s unremarkable screenplay, despite all trailer-park grittiness and emotionally calloused performance. The Wrestler is ultimately just a better-made Rocky Balboa (2006), whose embrace of tragedy feels no less formulaic.
And how is Rourke? Still suspiciously overpumped, locks long (like those of the ’80s hair-metal bands whose soundtrack emphasis is the film’s wittiest touch), impressive in seemingly unfaked rough ring action, generally bruised, and apologetic, he’s a one-dimensionally sweet tuff guy. He’s a star again but has he really been asked to play anybody but himself?
Opens Thurs/25 in San Francisco