In an industry filled with bizarre and depressing stories, Mickey Rourke’s will undoubtedly go down as one of the most … eccentric, shall we say? I almost said “sad,” but his story is far from wrapped up, and anyone who has had one award-worthy comeback could very well have another. This is Hollywood, after all, and you generally can’t make this stuff up.
And you really can’t make the life and career of Rourke up. I don’t really need to repeat it here -- you know how the handsome bad boy ran himself out of Hollywood, was rendered unrecognizable (who can believe the guy in Angel Heart is the same man of The Wrestler?), and came back in a blaze of Darren Aronofsky-directed glory. He was widely considered the favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actor in 2009, and it seemed like the kind of Rocky Balboaesque story the Academy loves to tell itself.
But then he lost. At the time, I wondered if the Academy hadn’t snubbed Rourke because the ending wasn’t guaranteed -- or rather, they felt one real-life character arc wasn’t enough to hand a statue to, and he had to well and truly earn it with a series of heart-wrenching performances and a good behavioral report card.
Presumably, if the Academy had such a thought, it’s been rather justified by all of Rourke’s post-The Wrestler roles. Now, being nominated for an Oscar doesn’t immediately earn one the highest caliber scripts, and someone like Rourke has to be difficult to cast. (I hate to be shallow, but his appearance alone makes him difficult to put in anything but the most extreme roles.) But it’s slightly depressing to see that his best film since his anguished comeback is Iron Man 2. And come on, Iron Man 2 wasn’t exactly the greatest film, nor was Rourke particularly well-suited to it. (I know he has recently said much of his performance was left on the cutting room floor, but can you really imagine a version where Rourke’s Ivan Vanko equals Heath Ledger’s Joker? Or Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin?) While he looks like a comic book villain, he doesn’t scream “brilliant physicist” at all. (Was it the hair, or the sulfur-crested cockatoo? I’m thinking the cockatoo, who should not be left loose around all that arc technology.)
Iron Man 2 was also his best-reviewed film. I’m not one to constantly bank on Rotten Tomatoes scores as evidence, but it’s the only film to have been given a “certified fresh” rating since 2008. From that point on, they’ve been steadily falling: Kill Shot boasted a 43 percent (and hey, given the amount of solid actors in that, Rourke wasn’t the only one led down a half-baked path), The Expendables earned a 40 percent, 13 skidded to an 8 percent, and the widely derided Passion Play earned a painful 3 percent.
It’s good to see Rourke clean and working, but for anyone hoping for more raw and searing roles that plumb the dark depths of Rourke’s soul and reveal new universal truths have to be disappointed by Rourke’s B-movie choices and performances, which largely seem to fall into two camps: sneering and sinister, or mumbling and sad, with the occasional crossover between the two. (Sometimes he’s mumbling and sinister.)
Now, I can’t fault Rourke for choosing big paycheck roles like The Expendables or Immortals over intense indie fare. He went a long time without work, and you’d be a fool to turn down juicy paychecks. Plus, action movies are high-profile. Your average moviegoer probably knows The Rourke Story, but they may not have actually rented The Wrestler, so picking flashy roles is good business sense for getting even bigger roles. But so far, that hasn’t really happened for him. He’s still kicking around in the stuff that he would have probably done pre-The Wrestler.
But there’s hope. Immortals might turn out to be quite awesome and showcase a really badass side of Rourke (something that was flirted with in Iron Man 2 but ultimately lost under the accent), and he’s certainly more enthusiastic about his work in it than he has been about much of his recent output. I had great hopes for him signing onto Martin McDonagh’s latest, Seven Psychopaths, since McDonagh offers what few of Rourke’s recent films have -- good dialogue, solid humor, and well-written violence. It might have been exactly what Rourke needed to lift him out of his B-movie slump and into avenues of black comedy and smarter action. But, as is the case with the proudly rebellious Rourke, he dropped out, insisting “[McDonagh] wanted a whole lot for nothing.” So, there’s that. I don’t want to criticize what I don’t quite understand, but it’s hard to believe Passion Play offered more financial and artistic support (whatever it is that McDonagh lacks, anyway) than Seven Psychopaths.
I fear The Wrestler was a one-time thing for Rourke, and he’ll be trundling along now, always working, but never reaching the kind of critical acclaim he enjoyed on his comeback. I suspect audiences will become exasperated by him before embracing his eccentricities, eagerly awaiting his junkets, and cheering on his off-beat selections, as we’ve seen recently with Nicolas Cage. And in an industry of increasingly bland product (human and cinematic), that kind of color can add a lot. So, keep rocking, Rourke. We’ll keep watching.