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 (
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."
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