Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 2/21/09 w/ Additional Edits.
Professional wresting is something near and dear to fans as they watch men battle out in the ring, entertain audiences, do high-flying stunts, and moves in front of thousands of people in an arena with millions watching at home. Yet, some will say that pro wresting is fake but its defenders will argue passionately about the validity of pro wrestling. While it's largely dominated by Vince McMahon and his World Wrestling Entertainment company, stars that once worked for the company would often find themselves working in the world of independent wrestling as they wrestle people in high school gyms and small venues. It's a harsh reality that happens to those once their star is faded. Now a story about the aftermath of superstardom and a man dealing with reality as he faces a life outside of the ring is told in a film simply entitled The Wrestler.
The Wrestler tells the story of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a man who was a big star in the 1980s until in the next decade and the present. He's now wrestling in the independent circuits with little money while working in delis as he's getting a chance to wrestle to larger crowds again to have a rematch with one of his legendary opponents. Instead, health problems forces him to face life outside of wrestling where he befriends a stripper who convinces him to try to mend his relationship with his estranged daughter. Directed by Darren Aronofsky of Pi & Requiem for a Dream fame with a script written by Robert D. Siegel, the film reveals the harsh realities of pro wrestling and what happens to star wrestlers after their time in the limelight. Playing the title character is Mickey Rourke in his first major leading role in ages. Also starring Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Todd Barry, and several pro wrestling luminaries like Ernest "The Cat" Miller and Ron "The Truth" Killings. The Wrestler is a heartbreaking tale of redemption and realism from Darren Aronofsky.
Randy "The Ram" Robinson was a top wrestler in the 1980s but his limelight has faded since. Now working at the New Jersey independent wrestling circuit, Randy can barely keep funds going to pay his rent where he lives in a trailer park and at times, his van. Money often goes to get his trademark blond hair dyed, skin tanned, and steroids when he needs them for his built physique. Wrestling in high school gyms and other halls to small crowds and even attend autograph sessions with few people going. Randy goes to a nearby strip club to meet a friend and stripper in Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) who is going through a hard time as patrons are favoring younger strippers over her. When his promoter (Todd Barry) announces that he plans to have a big rematch between Randy and his old rival the Ayatollah (Ernest "The Cat" Miller) that happened in Madison Square Garden 20 years ago. Everything seems up as it might be Randy's ticket back to the big time. Instead, Randy suffers a heart attack following a brutal and bloody hardcore style wrestling match.
When he hears that he can't wrestle again and that it might kill him if he does, he's forced to face a life without wrestling. Already working at a supermarket to scrape by, he asks the manager if he can get more work as all of his upcoming matches cancelled. After hanging out with Cassidy at the club, Randy decides to renew contact with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) who doesn't really want to do anything with him. With Cassidy's help, whose real name is Pam and has a 9-year old son, Randy goes for another attempt to reconnect with Stephanie that goes well as he reveals his regrets and flaws. While Cassidy's help managed to spark a possible relationship, Cassidy felt it crossed the line about work and real life. With Randy struggling to deal with reality and other things, he reluctantly decides to get back into the wrestling circuit in deciding to wrestle the Ayatollah. It's at this time he gets some unexpected support.
The idea of pro wrestling to an average viewer is pure spectacle with high drama, fast moves, big production values, and pure entertainment. Today's leading stars like John Cena, Chris Jericho, HHH, Randy Orton, Matt & Jeff Hardy, Edge, Christian, and dozen of others are living the high life in the world of wrestling in the WWE. Yet, what would happen to a wrestler after his time in the limelight. That's what the concept of this film is about. For many who had trained and lived to entertain audiences in arenas, small halls, or whatever, it's a moment that they love to do. Yet, what happens when they're unable to wrestle. It becomes very difficult for aging wrestlers in the real world as they're forced to take on jobs that can barely keep by while as wrestlers in the big time, they had lots of money.
Screenwriter Robert D. Siegel does a brilliant job in capturing the realism and craftsmanship that goes into the world of pro wrestling. How wrestlers talk about doing moves, who should win, what kind of instructions that they should go through. Yet, it's really a study about a man trying to find redemption for his mistakes and regrets about his relationship with his daughter while trying to accept the fact that he is who he is. Even as the real world proves to be troubling for him while wanting companionship with a stripper whose own days in the profession is waning. Siegel's script is wonderfully structured with the first act about the Ram wrestling and his eventual heart attack, the second act is him trying to renew his relationship with his daughter and try to find life outside of wrestling. The third and final act about his acceptance and lure of the ring which he can't seem to get away from because it's his environment as the real world is just too much for him. It's truly a fantastic script that explores a man dealing with the real world and all he wants from people is that he can bring them a smile.
Director Darren Aronofsky has been known for being a director that's all about grand visuals or techniques that are haunting to any story he's telling. With this film, Aronofsky strips away all of the stylish technique of his past films to go for something simpler and to the point. Inspired by the realist, documentary filmmaking style of Belgian directors the Dardenne Brothers. Aronofsky goes for a simpler, hand-held style to capture the action and drama that goes on in and out of the ring. While it's a looser style of filmmaking for Aronofsky to do. It works well for the story as he's letting the audience know what is going on in the wrestling world while following this man in his life. The hand-held work isn't as shaky as other films but it's truly engaging in how Aronofsky captures the drama and intensity of pro wrestling. To call pro wrestling fake is really an insult to an art form that takes a lot of hard work and dedication that these people do to entertain an audience. In the end, Darren Aronofsky crafted a brilliant film that is truly real but at the same time troubling in what goes on in the world of professional wrestling.
Cinematographer Maryse Alberti does a fantastic job with the film's stripped-down photography in its hand-held style. Without delving into any kind of stylish lighting schemes or flashy scenery. Alberti's work in its New Jersey location goes for gritty realism with bits of grain and action that goes on inside the ring. With its bright yet grimy look of the film in its daytime exterior scenes to the shady, colorful nighttime scenes at the strip club. Alberti's work is truly superb in its realism and atmosphere of the film itself. Editor Andrew Weisblum does an excellent job with the film's editing in its rhythmic cutting. Notably the intensity of the wrestling stuff that includes a scene that goes back in forth of Randy after a hardcore match and then going into that hardcore match. Weisblum's smooth transitions, jump-cut edits, and rhythmic pacing gives the film a leisurely pace while a faster one for the wrestling scenes.
Production designer Tim Grimes with set decorator Theo Sena and art director Matthew Munn do a very good job with the look of Randy's trailer and beat up Dodge Ram van on the inside. Plus the look of the ring from its shoddy, intimate look to the more sprawling feel of the match at the end that looks like most wrestling events. Costume designer Amy Westcott does a great job with the costumes from the tights and clothes that Randy wears in character to the more street clothes that he has. The clothes that Marisa Tomei wears from the t-shirts and jeans that she wears outside of the strip club to the more trashy clothing with a thong that she wears as a stripper. Sound designer Brian Emrich does an amazing job capturing the atmosphere of the strip club and New Jersey along with intense excitement and carnage that goes on in the ring with fans cheering. Emrich's work in capturing that energy and passion that fans have for wrestling is truly phenomenal.
Longtime Aronofsky collaborator Clint Mansell brings a plaintive, somber score to the film to complement the drama and emotion that plays throughout the film. Yet, it's the film's soundtrack that is filled with dance pieces from Madonna and Lil' Wayne along with hip-hop music providing some of the strip club music. Another portion of the film's soundtrack is the barrage of 80s metal music from hard rock legends like Guns N' Roses' Sweet Child O'Mine being the theme music for Randy in his big match, with a special thanks towards Axl Rose. Other 80s metal music comes from acts like Slaughter, Cinderella, Motley Crue, Accept, Scorpions, Quiet Riot, Firehouse, and Ratt provide some nostalgia and the soundtrack to Randy's life that Cassidy seems to share. For all of that cheesiness that hair metal brought, it was good time music and to have Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei sing along to Round and Round by Ratt provides an entertaining moment.
Yet, the most heartbreaking song of the soundtrack is its title track from Bruce Springsteen. The acoustic ballad featuring a somber piano and smooth orchestration is carried by Springsteen's gravelly voice filled with pain and heartache. It is the song that captures the sadness of the story as it is played in its final credits. It's truly one of Springsteen's best songs and a damn shame that the Academy Award chose not to nominate it and end up choosing 3 songs instead of five for its category.
The casting by Mary Vernieu and Suzanne Smith is excellent with appearances from Aronofsky cohorts like his parents as people at the market, Ajay Naidu as a medic, and Mark Margolis as Randy's landlord. From the wrestling world, there's Ron "R-Truth" Killings, the Blue Meanie, Johnny Valiant, Lex Lethal, and Necro Butcher as himself wrestling Rourke in the hardcore match. Another famed pro wrestler in former WCW star Ernest "The Cat" Miller is excellent as the Ayatollah by playing it straight out of the ring but brash inside the ring. Todd Barry is very good as the promoter who organizes the match between Randy and the Ayatollah. Evan Rachel Wood is great as Stephanie, Randy's estranged daughter who definitely wants to do nothing with her father after years of abandonment and neglect. Wood brings in the kind of anger that her character is carrying as well as the heartbreak over the fact that her father was never around as it's fantastic performance from the young actress.
Marisa Tomei is brilliant as Cassidy, an aging stripper whose days are being numbered in favor of younger strippers. Tomei truly has an amazing body for her age yet its her sincerity in her performance that really shines. Tomei also reveals the balance that she has that Randy doesn't have in terms of her identity as outside of the club, she's Pam. Tomei's performance is definitely great to watch along with the chemistry she has with Mickey Rourke as it's truly a superb supporting performance from the veteran actress.
Finally, there's Mickey Rourke in what is the ultimate comeback role and certainly his greatest performance to date. The actor who was considered one of the finest actors in the 1980s with performances in films like Barry Levinson's Diner, Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish, Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon, Stuart Rosenberg's The Pope of Greenwich Village, Adrian Lyne's 9 ½ Weeks, Alan Parker's Angel Heart, and Barfly only to crash with bad decisions in the early 90s before going into a brief boxing career. After recent films like Robert Rodriguez's Sin City and Tony Scott's Domino, Rourke is now officially back with a performance that is truly heartbreaking and nearly identical to his own life.
The performance Rourke gives as Randy "The Ram" Robinson is truly phenomenal where in the ring. He's a guy that likes to give people their money's worth for entertainment as Rourke does all of his own wrestling with help from Afa Anoai of the Wild Samoans tag team from the 1980s whose daughter appears as a pharmacist. Rourke sells his work in the ring as well as the grit and weariness that goes on. Outside of the ring, we see Rourke trying to please people and be a nice guy while dealing with the fact that he is a screw-up who is just trying to redeem himself in front of his daughter. There's a lot of sympathy he brings to his character as he is just trying to make people happy and find some kind of companionship as it's a remarkable and certainly a career-defining role for Mickey Rourke.
***Additional DVD Content Written on 12/4/10***
The 2009 Region 1 DVD for The Wrestler from 20th Century Fox presents the film in the widescreen format of 2:35:1 aspect theatrical ratio plus 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound in English plus Dolby Surround in Spanish plus English and Spanish subtitles. The DVD special features includes a music video of The Wrestler written and performed by Bruce Springsteen as he sings the song inside a ring and lifting weights. The other major special feature is a 42-minute behind-the-scenes featurette called Within the Ring.
The documentary features interviews with Aronofsky, various crew members, wrestlers, and actress Evan Rachel Wood as they talk about the making of the film. Though Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei weren’t interviewed, they were seen throughout during the film’s 35-day production which spanned from late January to early March of 2008 all over New Jersey along with a few scenes in Philadelphia. Aronofsky revealed that he had an idea for The Wrestler some time after making Requiem for a Dream as he intended to make it into a period piece set in the 1970s before Vince McMahon Jr. decided to combine all of those pro wrestling territories into what would become the World Wrestling Federation (later re-named World Wrestling Entertainment).
Yet after creating The Fountain and releasing it in 2006, Aronofsky decided to change his approach after seeing both King Kong Bundy and Tony Atlas wrestle for independent circuits as he decided to focus on a character. With the cinema verite style, Aronofsky wanted to go for realism while also wanting Mickey Rourke for the role. For many of the wrestling scenes, it was nearly improvised while a stunt double were used for some of Mickey’s wrestling scenes. Aronofsky revealed that he didn’t storyboard for the film in order to create something real. Even in the scenes at the supermarket where Darren’s father talked about the time he took Darren to see a wrestling show as a kid in a match between Tony Atlas and Hulk Hogan.
The overall featurette is quite sobering about the world of independent pro wrestling along with the veterans who are still doing it to make money. At the same time, there’s some funny moments involved including a credits sequence where Aronofsky and crew members fly over the top rope and land on safety floors. Yet, it ends with an outtake of Rourke trying to give Marisa Tomei a lap dance while complaining about the music.
Another featurette that only appears in the Region 1 Blu-Ray release is a 20-minute roundtable discussion from real-life wrestlers with moderator Damon Andrews. Discussing the film are Diamond Dallas Page, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Lex Luger, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, and Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake. They all expressed their opinions on the film and Rourke’s performance, which they praised, while Piper talks about some the aspects of Rourke’s performance that surprised him. Luger and Page also talk about the fact that pro wrestling isn’t fake considering the injuries they suffered over the years. Even as Piper delve into the difference of acting and the real emotions that goes on inside the ring.
The discussion about life after the big time where both Piper and Luger reveal a need for a union and a pension plan for wrestlers once they reach a certain age and are forced to abuse their bodies by wrestling independently for little money. Though Valentine was able to put a humor about the need of health insurance. Beefcake also reveal the importance of fans while Page reveals that once the fans see you from the curtains, that feeling is more important than any kind of drug out there. The overall featurette is definitely a great companion piece to the film as it gives wrestling fans and non-wrestling fans a chance to respect pro wrestling as well as the wrestlers themselves.
***End of DVD Tidbits***
While this film might have something to offer for fans of pro wrestling. Its realism and story along with its study of what wrestlers have to go through to entertain people might be too much for some. In many ways, what happens to a character like Randy "The Ram" Robinson to go from being a top star in the 1980s to now working for so little in small independent circuits shows a much harsher reality of wrestling industry. The blame can be placed on a top corporate like the WWE for not taking care of their employees in the aftermath. It's clear that wrestlers who are retired and not really able to find something to do with their life outside of the industry should get a pension plan. It's a film that clearly could be too much for some longtime fans of wrestling to deal with as the stars that people seem to love struggle to get by as they either couldn't deal with reality or risk their bodies and health to entertain audiences for one last time.
To say pro wrestling is fake is once again, insulting to those who do this for a living. We cheer for the faces and boo the heals but what they're doing is art. They do high flying moves, risk their bodies, and compete against one another for the sake of entertainment. Having to cheer or boo those guys is what they wanted to hear and they deserve a bit more credit than that. It's clear that even top guys like John Cena, Jeff Hardy, Randy Orton, and Chris Jericho understand that while paying much respect to the guys that came in before them (though Jericho in his character on TV and in the ring isn't along with Orton). To shortchange this art that they do, how they set up what moves to do and what they must do to their bodies clearly shows the brilliance and sacrifice that is the art of pro wrestling or as some like to call it, sports entertainment.
The Wrestler is a heartbreaking yet engrossing film from Darren Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel featuring a masterful performance from Mickey Rourke. While the film isn't as good as Aronofsky's 2000 film Requiem for a Dream for some of his fans, The Wrestler is really his most accessible film to date in its simplicity. Along with excellent supporting work from Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood, it's a film that is hard to watch at times but overall satisfying in its storytelling. For Mickey Rourke, it's a real comeback role for an actor that had been written off for so many years as he's given a chance to redeem himself. Hopefully, he can get his career back on track and get better roles as he deserves all of the accolades he's receiving. In the end, The Wrestler is a brilliant, engaging, and powerful film from Darren Aronofsky.
Darren Aronofsky Films: Pi - Requiem for a Dream - The Fountain - Black Swan - Noah - mother!
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