The world of a professional wrestler, with the outfits, the personas, and the fans will always be a myriad of truths and fictions. Yes, the outcomes are preordained and the storylines scripted, but no it isn’t fake; they really get hit and injured (sometimes permanently) and do things that should only be tried on Jackass!. But underneath this world, for the ones that have left the limelight behind, it’s only one of memories and disappointments. And to look closer, it is also a mirror into the career of Mickey Rourke. Once considered the next Robert De Niro with legendary roles in such 80’s classics as Diner, 9 ½ Weeks, and The Pope of Greenwich Village, Rourke’s star soon faded in the 90’s along with his career, which led him to briefly take up professional boxing. But after a small resurgence in bit parts, Rourke slowly found himself in demand which lead to a breakout of sorts in the 2000’s, with prominent roles in Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Sin City which brings us to The Wrestler. Upon first look, it’s easy to dismiss the movie as Rocky with wrestling in place of boxing. But after numerous viewings, it is an example of Rourke’s power as an actor as well as an excellent portrait of New Jersey in all its truth and grittiness.
Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke, who trained with real life wrestler Afa Anoai) is an ’80s wrestling star that has long since been out of the spotlight. Working on the independent circuit in gymnasiums and schools, Randy is a broken man in every aspect. His muscled body cannot stand the abuse anymore, and he keeps himself going with pain pills and steroids. Outside the ring, he makes ends meet as a stock clerk at a supermarket, constantly bullied by his boss, while trying to coax Cassidy, a stripper (Marissa Tomei, who bares everything and looks damn better than women half her age), to see him outside her work. He has long since lost contact with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and longs to be back on top, which may happen by a chance rematch with his old nemesis The Ayatollah (Ernest “The Cat” Miller). But his wrestling career is put in jeopardy after an extremely violent “hardcore” match leads to a heart attack that nearly kills him. Now Randy must decide if a last chance shot at fame is worth everything, including his very life.
Director Darren Aronofsky perfectly captures the balance of a person and wrestler. One minute, Randy is larger than life in the ring, playing to the crowd and basking in the attention; the next, he is sad and pathetic at his work, doing menial labor and swallowing his pride to work the deli counter. Rourke disappears into the role from beginning to end. In addition to performing some of the wrestling scenes, Aronofsky filmed him waiting on real customers at the deli counter in order to keep the scenes as realistic as possible. Apart from Rourke, Marissa Tomei also scored an Oscar nomination as a woman who is much like the Ram; well past her prime to be working in a strip club (Cheeques, located in Linden if you’re interested), she struggles night after night, and well aware that she is being passed over for the younger entertainers. Both Randy and Cassidy live in an era that has long since passed; the ’80s, celebrating the music and clothing, trying to deny the current times around them. An excellent example is summed up during their meeting at a bar while RATT plays in the background: “Yeah, the ’90s really sucked.”
Along with Rourke and Tomei, another star is the state of New Jersey. With a short shooting schedule, Aronofsky filmed on location in Linden, Bayonne, Rahway, Roselle Park, Hasbrouck Heights, Garfield, Elizabeth, and Asbury Park while other scenes where filmed in Pennsylvania and New York. What really captures the spirit of the film is a scene in Asbury Park, where Randy has a brief reunion with his daughter. Asbury has undergone a complete renovation and transformed into a more glitzy, trendy affair of clubs, restaurants, and hotels. But at the time of filming, it was a forgotten, dilapidated boardwalk of empty venues and boarded up businesses. But New Jersey is kinda like that; most of the industries that populated Newark, Passaic, and Paterson (to name a few) had been outsourced and left the Garden State high and dry. Much like Randy, time has not been too kind to the state, but still everyone (me included) still remembers when good times were to be had and hope was not a lost word.
The Wrestler won numerous awards from every film festival from here to Toronto and, following two wins at the Golden Globes including best actor and best original song (courtesy of original NJ’er Bruce Springsteen) was expected to win big at the Academy Awards. But sadly, it came up short with Rourke losing out to Sean Penn and Tomei to Penelope Cruz, but it gave people around the world a new reason to consider Mickey Rourke a major talent again as well as showing New Jersey in a non-Jersey Shore light. Subtle, funny, and moving, The Wrestler is definitely one of the best films in the past decade.