Will Pfeifer: Beaten and battered by life, Mickey Rourke shines in 'The Wrestler'

Will Pfeifer

Mickey Rourke playing a professional wrestler. It should be terrible. Instead, it’s fantastic.

If you missed “The Wrestler” in theaters, I highly recommend catching it on DVD. It’s such an intimate portrait of a man in decline that it might work even better on the small screen, where the day-to-day existence of Randy “The Ram” Robinson will seem not bigger-than-life, but poignantly life-size.

From a great opening credits sequence where the camera slowly pans past posters, magazines and other evidence of Robinson’s glory days, director Darren Aronofsky cuts to the present, following Robinson as he makes his way to the ring. Playfully, Aronofsky refuses to let us see Rourke’s face until the last possible second, and it’s a clever tactic, using our knowledge of Rourke’s real-life struggles (and his genuinely wrecked appearance) to build suspense. We know what Rourke looks like, of course, but we want to see that mangled mug in the context of the movie that made it famous. And when he finally faces the crowd (and us), it’s still startling.

That initial glimpse of “The Ram” builds to a full-scale examination of one royally screwed-up life. Sure, Robinson still attracts a small crowd in the ring, and his aging fans still want his autograph, but otherwise, it’s a grim existence. He spends his days working in a grocery store, taking endless abuse from his nasty boss. He’s infatuated with a stripper who only talks to him when he’s paying for a dance. (Marissa Tomei is excellent, playing another character stuck on a stage, moving her body as ’80s heavy metal plays in the background.) His only friend is a bored kid who plays an ancient wrestling video game with Robinson, all the time wishing it was the new “Call of Duty” instead.

It’s a bleak picture, but thanks to Rourke’s spirit, it’s somehow never too bleak. You get the feeling that, as sad as his existence is, Robinson is still happy to be alive.

But what’s really impressive about “The Wrestler” is how it all works, from the glimpses of the glory days to the weather-beaten settings to the use of Quiet Riot’s “Bang Your Head” to the final shot, which manages to be tragic and triumphant.

Even the pre- and post-ring scenes are funny and down-to-earth, with the guys behaving like co-workers whose job it is to beat each other up for a few minutes. There is one big exception, though: When Randy and another wrestler square off in a “staple-gun match” that also includes barbed wire, panes of glass and an aluminum ladder, it’s something you won’t soon forget.

Contact Will Pfeifer at wpfeifer@rrstar.com or 815-987-1244. Read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/movieman/. See video reviews at rrstar.com/multimedia.

MAKE ROOM

Some DVDs out this week:

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

“Incendiary”

“Wendy and Lucy”

And CDs:

Ciara, “Fantasy Ride”

Elliott Yamin, “Fight For Love”

Jewel, “Lullaby”

Sources: dvdtalk.com, tophitsonline.com