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By now you've heard enough about Mickey Rourke's performance in The Wrestler that it might not need an introduction. Still though, his performance as professional wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson is so raw, authentic and vulnerable (physically and emotionally) is a marvel to behold. In fact, allow me to get a slightly tangential gripe off my chest. While many feel that Sean Penn's 2009 Best Actor Oscar for Milk was much deserved, a comment made by film critic Robert Wilonsky has stuck with me. Now I'm going on memory, so forgive me, but his thought on the matter seemed to rely upon the fact that Sean Penn played a different person, whereas Rourke's performance in The Wrestler was really more because he played Mickey Rourke. Others were of the frame of mind that the nomination was the true recognition. I strongly disagree on this issue. More on that in a minute.
From a script by Robert Siegel and directed by Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain), Randy was a professional wrestler was part of the '80s heyday of the sport. And whose large muscles, tanned torso and treated hair could easily be confused with another similar icon during that era, one Hulk Hogan. When the crowds fade, Randy finds himself wrestling in less than decent circumstances. He lives in a trailer in New Jersey which he can barely afford and participates in shows in halls that seat several hundred (as opposed to the huge arenas he would headline and sell out), getting paid a small fraction of what he used to. After a particularly brutal match, Randy collapses from a heart attack, and when he wakes up, he's told that wrestling is forbidden, that the next match might be his last. He tries to reconcile with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood, Across the Universe), whom he hasn't seen in years. He also tries to strike up a relationship with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, Wild Hogs), who he's met and had drinks with at the strip club he works at. Both Cassidy and Stephanie draw clear lines with Randy's intentions. When Randy decides to go back to the squared circle, the people in and around him wonder if he's going to die in the ring.
For those who are unfamiliar with wrestling and wrestlers outside of news headlines, within the context of the occupation that Randy has, consider that most wrestlers travel for three-quarters of the year, state to state, and (sometimes) country to country. They take bumps, bumps that hurt, and they take pills to help combat the pain and maintain the travel schedule. Many of the boys in the locker room are on their second or third marriages, with kids they haven't seen in years. Randy's heart issues are the result of years of physical abuse, and the heart attack, while seeming a little bit cheesy in terms of plot development, is commonplace among the sport (several have died from heart attacks due to years of wear and tear). Rourke's story is compelling and dramatic, but that doesn't mean he's carrying the role strictly on that. Consider the early interactions with Stephanie. They seem childlike and simplistic, because he hasn't seen her in years, he's not sure how to be around her. When he realizes she's not going to take anymore of his crap, he opens up as to how he felt when he left her and her mother, in a scene that's emotionally powerful.
You've also got the way Rourke comes off as a wrestler, which is not unlike many other wrestlers in his position. He takes the bumps, he discusses a match with an opponent, he cuts himself (or "blades") on the forehead to draw blood, or even taking staples to the chest. The way Aronofsky shoots the film is mostly from Randy's perspective, shooting behind him, always a step or two behind. He draws you into what Rourke has to do, and while some of the work is done by Rourke's stand-in and the other wrestlers, you viscerally experience what Randy does, particularly during one brutal match. It's ironic in a way, one feels the real pain by someone in a "fake" sport, even though the bumps are kind of fake.
Another thing that others don't notice is how well Rourke gets into the mind of a pro wrestler. Because he's been caught up in the grind for two decades, not only is he unsure of how to act with his daughter, but some of what he does goes back to his wrestling persona. John Orquiola wrote an excellent article which talked about the nuances of psychology a wrestler uses to hook a crowd, examining things like the video game sequence with a boy in the trailer park. He says, "While the kid complains about how ancient the game is and baffles Randy about Call of Duty 4, Randy beats the kid in the game and invites him to a rematch. It's a perfect little moment if you understand pro wrestling: Randy beat the kid in the first match and he wanted the kid to win the rematch. The kid put him over, now he'll put the kid over. That's pro wrestling."
The Wrestler is not the cheeriest a cinematic experience. You see Rourke go through some odious practices, even just to keep up his appearance. From using hair dye from a box or a tan from a bottle, to buying (and injecting) steroids, these are all things that happen in the business. And unlike the "real" world, these athletes don't get pensions, or health care. They do all these things for the adoration of the people. Randy does it for the fans when he wrestles, or for the smiles of those ordering food from him at a supermarket deli. They're HIS people, and he wants their love and attention, sometimes more than those who are closest to him, and often times against common sense. Some have found the ending to The Wrestler poetic and moving. Considering the history of those before Randy the Ram, and those who will come after, Randy's denouement isn't going to be good. Those who don't learn from history are bound to repeat it, and when the crowds fade away, a wrestler does as well, and to tragic circumstances in increasing (and alarming) numbers. What separates Mickey Rourke from Randy the Ram is Mickey Rourke, and it's clear Mickey Rourke isn't going the way of his character. That (among other things) is why Rourke isn't playing Rourke.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Aronofsky wanted the film to look like a "proactive documentary," and with the help of cinematographer Maryse Alberti (Taxi to the Dark Side), the AVC MPEG-4 encoded 2.35:1 widescreen film looks as gritty as I remember it in the theaters. You're not going to get a multi-dimensional look in the image, or a lot of detail in the foregrounds either. The film grain is present through the feature, however it's not really that much of a distraction, and since the film is almost shot in a "guerrila" nature, it's not like this was going to be reference quality anyway. That said, The Wrestler looks satisfactory in high definition.
DTS-HD Master Audio lossless 5.1 surround, but before you celebrate by jumping off the top of your couch, it's a fairly quiet film. Aronofsky music collaborator Clint Mansell doesn't do much in the film, though the soundtrack is littered with '80s heavy metal. Cinderella, Rat, Accept and Quiet Riot (to name a few) are all here and all sound clear and sport a nice dynamic range. Crowd sounds are quietly immersive, when Randy goes through either a bingo hall with a hundred or so, or a larger arena seating a couple thousand, you're bathed in crowd noise without it being forced on you. Subwoofer activity is nil, but dialogue is sharp as a tack and doesn't bleed to the other front channels. A side note: Mansell (and former Guns 'N Roses guitarist) Slash teamed up for some effective and slightly haunting work on the composition, by the way.
Not too much, but what's here is interesting. "Within the Ring" (42:43) is a look at the production itself. It's got interviews with the crew and only one cast member (Wood), as they discuss the production and the origins of the story. The production designer, Tim Grimes, talks about the 37 locations in 37 days shoot as being flown "by the seat of our pants" from his perspective. Raw footage is thrown in sometimes, including some deleted footage which would have been nice to see as an extra. The crew, or more specifically, producer Scott Franklin, seems to hint at some friction between Rourke and Aronofsky, though it's never really explained in much detail for whatever reason. Mansell talks about how he approached the score to the film, and the usual topics a making-of piece touches on are included. It's a decent supplement on the film, to be sure.
The second feature is a roundtable of old wrestlers (25:23). The packaging boasts that they're going to "share their secrets," but in actuality, Greg Valentine, Lex Luger, Roddy Piper, Diamond Dallas Page and Brutus Beefcake are part of a discussion on their thoughts of the film and how authentic it was. They cover the authenticities and subtleties, sometimes in one breath, and occasionally talk about their times on the road. They also talk about why Tomei's character had to be a stripper, in something I hadn't really considered. Sometimes they seem to dip their toes back into their character sometimes, cutting a promo with a host whose questions were a little weak, but it's an interesting discussion. A video (3:59) for the Bruce Springsteen song that bears the name of the movie is next. Oh by the way, the Academy sucks for not even nominating this tune, by the way. If the lyrics and tender feeling in the song don't get to you, nothing will. Trailers for Wolverine, Slumdog Millionaire and Notorious follow, along with an ad for Springsteen's "Working on a Dream" album, complete the first disc. The ever popular digital copy on the second disc is the other extra.
The Wrestler is an excellent film, and not just because Mickey Rourke turns in a tremendous performance. All of the major performances are excellent, and they help shed a much-deserved light on an industry that takes a couple of tons of flesh from those who play a role in it. Technically it's not a winner, but the supplements are worth the time, and the film is a must-watch, and definitely worth it for fans of the sport.