I recently sat down to watch an advance copy of The Wrestler by myself. Imagine my surprise when Chris Benoit showed up two minutes into the movie. And he brought enough friends to fill my living room. Eddie Guerrero. Brian Pillman. The British Bulldog. Ravishing Rick Rude. Mr. Perfect. It was an endless stream. I didn't have to worry about feeding them or getting them a drink, though. That's the thing about dead people—they make great guests.
The movie is highlighted by a Mickey Rourke performance that can only be described as incredible. We see superb acting all the time, but only occasionally does someone enter the "I have no idea who else could have pulled that character off" zone. (More on that later.) A washed-up, down-on-his-luck movie star from the '80s portraying a washed-up, down-on-his-luck wrestling star from the '80s? Perfect. You'd want to find someone like Mickey Rourke to play Randy "The Ram" Robinson, right? Well, how about Mickey Rourke?
Sure! Absolutely! Is he alive?
Yes, he is. And if he hadn't been such an insufferable jerk, if his life hadn't fallen apart, if he had valued his gift instead of running from it—shunning the spotlight, carousing, disfiguring his face during a bizarre boxing career, pushing away everyone who cared about him—maybe Rourke would have been the next DeNiro instead of a cautionary tale. But for years, he was no different from Doc Gooden or Derrick Coleman, someone blessed with prodigious talent who simply refused to foster it. Now, suddenly, he stands for something else: redemption, hope, 15th chances, life's continuous surprises. Mickey Rourke—Mickey Rourke!—is going to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. He may even win.
To be honest, I still can't figure out how we didn't get Nicolas Cage in this movie. For $15 million, he gladly would have bleached his Con Air hairdo, bulked up to Kiss of Death proportions, made a few Nic Cage faces—and given us a thoroughly mediocre film. Director Darren Aronofsky should be applauded for avoiding the big-budget route, instead scaling down to an indie and rolling the dice with Rourke. Because Rourke carries this movie. Every frame.
Mickey looks and acts like a washed-up wrestler. He nails every mortifying moment, like the scene in which The Ram, waiting for fans at a depressing sports memorabilia show, glances around the room at the other pathetic ex-wrestlers and sees a little too much of himself in each of them. Or the scene in which doctors pull thumbtacks and staples out of his back after a vicious match—it's shot so tight, Rourke has to be taking all the bumps—and he can barely hold himself up. The movie is filmed in the grittiest way, almost like a documentary. You feel every cough, every wince, every clothesline.
There is a broader theme addressed here: the allure of fame and how poorly so many people react when it's taken away. The film captures the underbelly of washed-up celebrity culture, the irony of fans who snap pictures of ex-stars only because they meant something 20 years ago. And the filmmakers know the danger of being trapped in the past, when you've executed Plan A, lived it, loved it, made some mistakes, ultimately screwed everything up and then can't come up with a Plan B … so you keep trying to relive Plan A.
Without giving away any crucial plot points, I loved the ending (perfect), the matches (jarringly authentic), the wrestling shoptalk (dead on) and Rourke's moving final speech (a classic "Is he talking about the character or himself?" moment that has to be seen to be believed). Having said all that, I need a few more viewings before I can rank it on my all-time sports-movie list. Will it suck me in at 3 a.m. after I've just watched it three weeks before? Will I stick around for an extra 20 minutes just to catch an ending I've already enjoyed and digested 30 times? That's when you know.
The Wrestler might get there; it might not. But I know I won't forget Rourke's work here. The hardest achievement in acting—in my opinion, anyway—is nailing a role that absolutely nobody else could have played. Pacino owned Michael Corleone … but DeNiro could have owned it as well. Who else, though, but Val Kilmer could have nailed Jim Morrison? Does anyone besides Will Ferrell pull off Ron Burgundy? Could anyone other than Sly Stallone play Rocky? It's something you can learn only after the fact.
The studios would never admit it, but the real reason screenwriter William Goldman famously said of Hollywood, "Nobody knows anything," is that—wait for it—nobody knows anything. In 1994, nobody could have predicted Shawshank would one day be an iconic movie—and believe me, that would never have happened if Danny Glover had been Red instead of Morgan Freeman. Same goes for Rourke knocking it out of the park here. At some point during the film you'll find yourself wondering why these memorable performances don't happen more often.
The short answer is: They can't. Why? Because nobody knows anything.
Of course, The Wrestler resonates for a more sinister reason, too. Pro wrestling chews up and spits out its athletes with grueling schedules, brutal physical punishment and a tacit understanding that performance enhancers are okay—as are greenies, sleeping pills and painkillers. These guys destroy their bodies, then their hearts give out and they die. Google the phrase "dead wrestlers," and your computer will start to smoke like an overtaxed car engine.
The mainstream media don't care because the general public doesn't care. After all, it's a fake sport with scripted endings. Why should it matter to us when wrestlers are found dead in their beds or seen limping around on two fake hips? Why should it matter to us that there's a list of modern wrestlers who died before the age of 50—many of them famous—and that the list is more than 70 names long? Hey, there's always another wave of guys on the way. Always. They'll do whatever it takes to get ahead, just like the last generation did.
I followed wrestling all through my 20s, and continued to order the major PPVs every year … right until Benoit murdered his wife, suffocated his son and took his own life, in 2007. That was it for me. Considered one of the best performers in the business, Benoit spent so many years wrecking his body, working through concussions and poisoning himself with enhancers and painkillers that he eventually lost his marbles. His story was so shocking that nobody believed his sport would ever recover. Last time I checked, the WWE was still chugging along—and its stars looked as ripped as ever.
As someone who counts Superfly Snuka's steel cage leap against Don Muraco as one of the most exciting moments of his childhood, I'd never root against wrestling. I've just moved on. For now. The sport can have me back when it institutes a pension plan for retired wrestlers, when there's an off-season that mirrors those of the major sports so bodies can recover, when it cracks down on all enhancers, when someone explains to me why I shouldn't care that so many ghosts showed up for my private screening.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that The Wrestler has a sad ending. Like it could have ended any other way.
For more of the Sports Guy, check out the Sports Guy's world.