‘The Wrestler’: Death Match, By Kurt Loder

Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei take it to the limit.

[movieperson id="54512"]Mickey Rourke[/movieperson] has taken a lot of punishment over the years, most of it with a puzzling eagerness. In movies of the 1980s, like “Diner,” “Angel Heart” and “The Pope of Greenwich Village,” his whispery charisma made him one of the most fascinating young actors in film. Then, in the early ’90s, he bailed out of the business to become a low-level professional boxer, which is where the punishment came in. Now, at the age of 52, with a face so heavily repaired it resembles an Easter Island import, Rourke has found the role of a lifetime in Darren Aronofsky’s [movie id="371022"]“The Wrestler,”[/movie] in which he plays a has-been grappler who has also taken a lot of punishment but can’t stop coming back for more — punishment is his life. It’s a fearless and heartbreaking performance: Rourke himself may look lumpy and worked-over, but his charisma remains undented.

His character is Randy Robinson — “The Ram” — a star on the pro-wrestling circuit back in the ’80s. Twenty-five years later, he’s still pulling on the tights and soaking up steroids, but the matches are sparse these days, and the money minimal — he works a dead-end supermarket job on the side, but still can’t make the rent in the dismal New Jersey trailer park where he lives. (New Jersey, with its bare trees and wintry flatlands, is a presiding emotional presence in the picture.) Wrestling has changed, too: Now your opponents come at you with barbed wire and staple guns, and rake dinner forks across your face. It’s a young man’s game, and Randy, with his bad back, hearing aid and deteriorating ticker, is no longer young.

But wrestling is all he has. His daughter, Stephanie ([movieperson id="201379"]Evan Rachel Wood[/movieperson]), doesn’t want to know him, since he bugged out on most of her childhood; and the only other woman he feels anything for is a stripper called Cassidy ([movieperson id="62725"]Marisa Tomei[/movieperson]), who’s starting to fade herself. Randy’s real home is the ring, even if it’s just a makeshift affair in a school gym or a cheesy auditorium these days; and his only friends are other wrestlers: Lex Lethal, Tommy Rotten, the Necro Butcher — guys like that. The young up-and-comers remember him as the blond god of a thousand childhood wall posters. And the battered old vets he meets at tawdry memorabilia gatherings put a chill in his soul.

One day, Randy runs up against his own mortality, and a doctor tells him if he doesn’t quit wrestling, he’ll die. But a semi-big celebrity rematch has been scheduled, pitting him against his most famous opponent from back in the day, a bruiser called the Ayatollah (Ernest Miller — like the other ring rats here, an actual professional wrestler). “With a little luck,” he tells Cassidy, in the sultry din of her strip club, “this could be my ticket back on top.”

The movie is a bracing demonstration of how much art can be made with very little money. (Even the big ring scenes were shot with a pair of 16mm cameras.) Aronofsky and his editor, Andrew Weisblum, keep the story coming right at you, fast and raw; and Aronofsky doesn’t pull back from presenting the fight sequences as they would have to be: brutal, loud and bloody. But there are also interludes of piercing sweetness, especially the one in which Randy persuades Stephanie to take a walk with him on a deserted Jersey Shore boardwalk, and the two actors improvise an awkward waltz in an abandoned ballroom. There’s also a harrowingly funny scene in which Randy gets a day-job promotion to the deli counter (for which he’s forced to don a ridiculous hairnet) and turns it into a little performance amid the pesto pasta and the potato salad. (His audience is composed of actual patrons of the supermarket in which the scene was shot.) And Marisa Tomei is brave and dazzling as Cassidy, a woman whose own body, like Randy’s, is fast approaching its sell-by date. Cassidy is no longer having much luck finding takers for her lap dances, and the scene in which we see her gyrating around a stripper pole at the club, with her eyes registering the crowd’s minimal appreciation, is quietly, crushingly sad.

But Rourke is the movie’s central amazement. He plays Randy as a man with no future who won’t give up on hope. “The world doesn’t give a sh– about me,” he tells Cassidy backstage at a match, gesturing at the great, baffling world beyond the arena walls. “The only place I get hurt is out there.”

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Wrestler.”

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s review of “Seven Pounds” and his Best of 2008 list.

For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.