I’m a sucker for sports movies. Good, bad or indifferent, I love ’em. Be it a beaut like “Bull Durham” or a snoozer like “Leatherheads” from a few years back, there’s just something about folks trying to balance life on and off the field of combat that really pushes my buttons.
While professional wrestling doesn’t fit everybody’s definition of a “sport,” the latest movie about that world — director Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” — fits firmly in the sports movie category. A lovely, subtle, beautifully made film that works because of two stunningly good performances at its core, “The Wrestler” should definitely be on your must-see list before Oscar night. It’s going to win something, and you should know why.
The film tells the story of Robin Ramzinsky (Mickey Rourke), more popularly known as Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Once a big-wheel professional wrestler who appeared in Nintendo games and saw his likeness sold as an action figure, Ramzinsky is a sad and faded has-been by the time the film opens, living in a ramshackle trailer park, making ends meet bucking cases in the storeroom of a grocery store, and picking up a few extra bucks on weekends wrestling in American Legion halls before miniscule crowds. The one spot of joy in his life is Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a past-her-prime stripper whose name is actually Pam. After every match, Ramzinski usually goes to the strip club and blows whatever he hasn’t spent on steroids and pain killers buying lap dances from Cassidy, using his time with her to chat about his glory days. Soon, however, he pushes his body too far during a match, and suffers a heart attack, followed by open-heart surgery. Doctors tell him that if he tries to wrestle again, he’ll probably die. The timing couldn’t be worse. An old promoter has recently called, saying he wants to set up a 25th anniversary re-match of a bout Ramzinski fought against a Reagan-era “heel” called “The Ayatollah” before an audience of over a hundred thousand. There will be scouts in the audience, the promoter tells him, and a fat payday. More importantly, it could be his chance at getting back to the big time. As he was in his glory days, Ramzinski is left with a choice: his life in the ring, or his personal life; getting closer to Pam and building bridges with his estranged daughter, or indulging the constant roar of the crowd that resonates in his head and possibly dying in the process. The choice he makes in the end produces one of the most moving moments I’ve seen all year.
Though Marisa Tomei shines here, it’s Mickey Rourke who is the real star of this film. He plays Ramzinski so low-key and subtle that after awhile — especially given Aronovsky’s hand-held documentary style — you really forget that you’re watching a performance and not some kind of ultra-intimate reality TV show about a washed-up wrestler. Yeah, that’s the point of acting; to fool the audience into thinking what’s happening on screen is really going on. But here, Rourke does his job exceedingly well, probably in no small measure because he actually knows what it’s like to be both glorified and later crushed by the wheel of fortune. His performance isn’t the kind that makes you walk out of the theater saying “wow,” but it is the kind you find yourself haunted by later, in the deep watches of the night.
“The Wrestler” is a great film — interesting to look at, nicely written, and built around two great characters. Don’t feel dumb if you find yourself wondering what happened to Pam and Ramzinski after the credits rolled, as if they were old friends you hadn’t seen in awhile. At some point, thanks to the actors who worked hard to bring them to life, they become real people you can care about.