Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) is a beaten-down, washed-up pro wrestler who currently resides in a New Jersey trailer park. Gigs are few and far between since his '80s glory days when he played Madison Square Garden and had his image affixed to action figures and videogames. To make ends meet, he's recently been forced to take a part-time job working the deli counter at a local supermarket. Even with his recurring health problems, Randy does his best to maintain appearances. He still wears the Ram's trademark blonde hair extensions, and his gnarled flesh has maintained a waxy, golden hue thanks to regular visits to a tanning salon.
In The Wrestler, the latest film from Sundance veteran Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi), it's tough deducing just where Randy leaves off and Mickey Rourke begins. Like Randy, Rourke had a remarkable run back in the Reagan era. After his breakthrough performance in 1981's Body Heat, Rourke seemed on the verge of becoming the Brando of his generation, thanks to remarkable work in movies like Diner, Angel Heart and Barfly. Also like Randy, shit happened to Rourke (drugs, messy break-ups, a misguided attempt at becoming a professional boxer), and his career was pretty much kaput by the time Bill Clinton was sworn into office.
Since The Wrestler involves Randy's quixotic attempt at redemption - courtesy of a 20th anniversary rematch of one of his most illustrious bouts and a possible reconciliation with his estranged daughter (a spiky Evan Rachel Wood) - it's impossible not to think of the film as Rourke's bid to reclaim his onetime golden-boy status in Hollywood. The glory of Aronofsky's movie is that both character and actor triumph against some pretty formidable odds. Everyone loves an underdog, and The Wrestler offers up two prime specimens that audiences (and critics) can't resist cheering for.
Written by former Onion editor-in-chief Robert Siegel, the film exists in an irony-free zone that's closer in spirit to the original Rocky - yes, it's occasionally corny, and the climax is unabashedly sappy - than it is to Aronofsky's usual outré fare. Yet, while The Wrestler is surely the most conventional work to date by this dangling-from-a-limb-and-loving-it director (just try to make heads or tails out of Aronofsky's 2006 head trip The Fountain), it's also his most satisfying and accomplished outing so far. A few stray touches of Aronofsky's typically gnarly signature remain. Maryse Alberti's virtuoso cinema-tography is an homage to Belgium's Dardennes Brothers (The Son, Rosetta), particularly their love of hand-held camerawork. And some of the graphic violence during Randy's matches is nearly as stomach-churning as junkie horror-show Requiem. But none of the gruesomeness feels exploitative or gratuitous.
Although Rourke is pretty much the whole show here, he's a generous enough actor to allow Wood, and especially Marisa Tomei as a platinum-hearted stripper, an opportunity to shine. At times, The Wrestler almost has the feel of a glorified drive-in movie. Back in the early '70s, studio films like The Last American Hero, Junior Bonner and Kansas City Bomber took gritty, unvarnished looks at stock-car racing, the rodeo circuit, tank-town boxers and even roller derby with an unfussy artistry and painstaking verisimilitude that's totally out of step with contemporary Hollywood, where everything has to be "big" and laden with CGI effects. Like them, The Wrestler is truly one from the heart.