I couldn’t help but think about Rocky while watching this. Not just because it dealt with a poor guy that loves being in the ring, but for the real life story. Sylvester Stallone had no money and was offered almost $50,000 for the screenplay. He refused to sell it, since he wanted the lead role. He was perfect in the part and that stubborn decision made him millions and gave him a career that wasn’t just as a screenwriter.
I read somewhere that when writer/director Darren Aronofsky had Mickey Rourke set for the lead, the studios freaked. Rourke used to be an A-list actor, but he had a rather well-known fall from grace. Now, the one pet peeve I’m going to have is the few critics I’ve already heard calling this a “comeback.” Have they forgotten how blown away we were by his gritty performance in Sin City a few years ago? Unfortunately that was followed up by the lead in the weak Domino, but the point being – he came back a few years ago!
While watching this movie, I thought of a 60s movie I loved called Requiem for a Heavyweight. It’s the story of an aging boxer that eventually steps into the wrestling ring, against his will. Strange, because Aronofsky wrote a film called Requiem for a Dream (side note: am I the only critic that didn’t like his debut — Pi?)
I want to keep mentioning Aronofsky in this review because he deserves an awful lot of credit for this splendid movie, which he co-wrote with Robert Siegel.
Rourke is Randy “The Ram” Robinson, who was once a top professional wrestler (think Hulk Hogan, which you will when you hear the “Hey brother”). The years haven’t been kind, and he’s been a druggie, an absentee father, and is living in a trailer park (which he can’t even afford). You see why the scared (both inside and out) Mickey Rourke was perfect for the part?
The Ram gets an opportunity to step back into the ring for a big payday and rematch (think Def Leppard reunion tour). The rematch is good news, because Ram has been wrestling at rinky-dink high school gyms for small paychecks. And these scenes are again why Aronofsky deserves so much credit. Ram isn’t wrestling with only 8 people in the stands, but a few hundred. It seemed like authentic venues where former wrestlers might end up. Even when the Ram does autograph signings, they seem realistic. Believe me, I have seen some of those. Often times at Comic Con, you’ll get these ex-wrestlers with a table set up for autographs that they sell for $25 a piece. There’s a show every other month near LAX at the Marriott. As a columnist for Autograph Magazine, I was there with my boss, who was selling subscriptions. I looked around at the variety of actors – people like Lou Ferrigno (the Hulk), a few wrestlers, the cast of Welcome Back, Kotter – selling their autographs for about 23 people walking around. That scene in the movie was perfectly recreated, and a lesser filmmaker would’ve done that scene with nobody there. The fact is, if you’ve ever been famous in your life, there are a handful of people that will show up to meet you, take a picture, and pay $25 for that opportunity. It doesn’t make it any less painful to be the one behind that table hawking this crap to them.
Let’s go back to praising Aronofsky and how he shot this movie. The first time we see Rourke is from behind. I remember when The Doors movie came out in the early 90s, the trailers teased us by showing Jim Morrison from behind walk to the stage. I thought it was because Val Kilmer wouldn’t look enough like Morrison (I was wrong about that). In this opening, it’s just one of many great decisions this filmmaker went with.
Now, I’ll discuss the two things that didn’t work for me in the movie. There were only two. One of them was a wrestler that uses razor blades and staple guns, and mutilates himself in the ring. Now, I was assured by a friend who loves wrestling that there is a guy that does this. And yes, I’ve read the stories about wrestlers techniques to create blood to make the action look “real.” I just don’t see Rourke getting this involved in something that damn near killed him. That doesn’t mean the scene wasn’t fun (albeit disturbing) to watch.
The other complaint was Marisa Tomei. It’s the only film I’ve seen her in where I felt she was miscast. The reason was because she’s supposed to play a stripper named Cassidy. Ram has taken a liking to her, and her to him. He’s one of the few customers in the club that pays her for table dances. That may be, but I hardly buy the scene where college guys heckle her when she gets on stage (“Hey grandma, bring me a drink” or whatever they said). A woman as beautiful as Tomei would still attract attention at a strip club. The clientele may prefer younger women, but they like – first and foremost – beautiful women. If Sophia Loren got out there at age 58, they’d love it. That made it a bit unrealistic, but not enough to even make this a big complaint. It was just something worth mentioning.
There’s an interesting story arc with Ram’s daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood. Her anger towards him is perfect, and the direction their story takes is fascinating. For example, there’s a scene where he buys her an outfit. Tomei tries to nicely tell him it’s not the best choice, and the way Ram handles it when he sees his daughters reaction – wow. For Aronofsky to have added this type of detail to characters, instead of just making him a one-dimensional meat head that wouldn’t have a clue…makes this movie a special treat.
There’s another time where Aronofsky didn’t overwrite the script. As Ram pleads with his daughter to let him back into her life, he says “I’m an old broken down piece of meat and I deserve to be all alone. I just don’t want you to hate me.”
How can anybody hate him at that moment? Now, I hated him when he gave a speech in the ring that was a little over-the-top, but hey. This will be rewarded with lots of Oscar nominations and hopefully lots of money at the box office. Unfortunately, if Rourke gets up and gives an Oscar speech like that, the music may come up underneath him before he can finish it.
There’s another scene in this movie that I think is just brilliant. It has Ram, who works a few crappy jobs, going into a deli to cut meat. As he walks down the stairs, we hear the sounds of a crowd. It’s as if he’s walking back into a ring with 25,000 fans waiting in anticipation, instead of the few grouchy customers that want their pound of pastrami. What follows after he gets into that deli is best for you to witness. This movie is really something special, and the two hours I spent watching it – I wish could’ve gone on another two. It will go on another two, when I see it again next week.
I’m giving this an A.