Still playing catch-up here, as I've still got a couple of movies to report back to you guys on in preparation for my annual Best-Of specials. I've been slowly but surely making my way through the biggest end-of year movies, and even trying to catch up, via DVD, on a few that I missed out on in the Spring and Summer. So with that in mind, I present a special weekend edition of the blog, focusing in on one of the most aniticpated and acclaimed movies of '08 ...
THE WRESTLER Review:
- What can I say, I'm a sucker for stories about old guys who can still kick ass. I'm not sure what it is exactly - I guess it's a guy thing? Because while women seem to always be worshipping at the altar of the fountain of youth, there is a certain fascination, I think, that us guys have with the older generation. There's something reassuring about someone who we looked up to in our childhood who can still go out there and amaze us. And we've seen that theme play out in a number of movies in 2008 alone - from RAMBO to GRAN TORINO. But it's a theme that is perhaps most effectively used here, in THE WRESTLER - because professional wrestling has always been that real-life fantasyland where comic book fantasies can play out live every week. I mean, where else but in pro-wrestling can I turn on the TV and see a guy like Shawn Michaels, who I idolized when I was about 10 years old, still going out there and playing the part of superhero some fifteen years later? It's a world where The Undertaker is still an unbeatable phenom after almost twenty years. It's a world where a guy like Hulk Hogan, pushing 55, could still potentially headline a Wrestlemania. Where a legend like the great Ric Flair retired just this past March, at the young age of 56, and in doing so easily stole the show from underneath other wrestlers less than half his age. But as any longtime fan of wrasslin' is well aware, the behind-the-scenes stories of these grapplers are infinitely more fascinating than the weekly soap operas their characters cycle through on TV. When the internet began to explode in the mid-90's, the world of real-life drama of pro-wrestling began to become increasingly visible to its fans, and in turn the on-screen storylines more and more reflected actual interpersonal conflicts and alliances. It got the point where the "smart", in-the-know fans knew who was a great guy in real life, who was a jerk, who played the backstage political games, and who needed to get their act together.
The increased transparency that pro-wrestling enjoyed beginning in the 90's paved the way for documentaries like Beyond the Mat and Wrestling With Shadows, which exposed a lot of ugly truths about the business. The way it ate up and spit out stars, athletes with no union and no retirement funds. The way that steroids and drugs were a way of life for many of the stars. The toll that life on the road took on wives and families. The increasing bloodlust of extreme fans who thrilled as wrestlers put themselves through tables, thumbtacks, barbed wire, and glass windows. The conventional wisdom was that wrestling was silly and fake, but the increasingly apparent reality was that it could be a violent and dangerous sport, one that exacted a painful price on its participants both mentally and physically.
This was all too clear as wrestlers began dropping like flies, in a tragic string of early deaths that just keeps going with no end in sight. One of the most tragic deaths, that of Owen Hart, happened due to equipment failure when Owen was set to rappel down to the ring from the ceiling. But most of the wrestling tragedies of the last decade or so have been drug-related. A combination of painful injuries and the continued pressure to perform, as well as the hard-partying lifestyle of the road, has been responsible for one death after another - the list goes on and on - Mr. Perfect, the British Bulldog, The Big Boss Man, Crash Holly, Mike Awesome, Brian Pillman, Chris Candido, Sherri Martel, Ms. Elizabeth, Rick Rude, and Eddie Guerrero, to name a few. All under 45. And that's without even mentioning Chris Benoit, whose murder-suicide last year is still one of the most shocking things I've ever heard about in my life.
And what about those who make it to ripe old age? Some, like Ric Flair and Terry Funk just keep wrestling into their 50's. Some become managers or road agents or trainers. Some open auto dealerships or burger joints. A select few are lucky enough to have careers in entertainment - but those with the charisma and star power of a Hulk Hogan or Dwayne Johnson are few and far between. Most just fade into obscurity - some indie shows here and there in high school gyms, wrestling for a few nostalgic fans despite pot bellies and busted knees. These are the long line of forgotten grapplers - who at one time or another may have been on top of the world during the boom periods in the 80's and mid-90's, but who now are relegated to the junk pile of pop culture obscurity.
And that's where THE WRESTLER picks up. It follows Randy "The Ram" Robinson, who at some point in the 80's was a wrestling icon, a champion, a rockstar. But now, in 2008, he's washed up, living in a trailer park in Jersey, working in a grocery store to pay the bills, and still donning his old tights on weekends to do small-time shows on the local circuit. In fact, the guy can still go - he still busts out his old high-flying signature move, the "Ram-Jam," in his matches, and thanks to a regiment of weights and steroids, he still boasts an impressive if worn-down physique. But the fact is that The Ram is a relic who never changed or evolved with the times. He still has the long, bleached-blonde hair, and still uses Quiet Riot's "Metal Health (Bang Your Head)" as his entrance music. At this point, he is plain and simply a nostalgia act.
That's what the movie is about - a guy who was once on top of the world trying to put the pieces of his life back together again. And what makes it work so well is first and foremost an absolutely awesome turn by Mickey Rourke as The Ram. We all knew Rourke could act, but the fact is that aside from a notable turn or two in films like SIN CITY, the perception was that Rourke was well past his Oscar-worthy prime. Well, much like The Ram, Rourke is clearly deadset on proving his critics wrong - his work here is simply iconic, and it's practically unthinkable to envision any other actor in the role. Clearly, Rourke's own life is in many ways a perfect parallel to The Ram's, and there are plenty of moments in the film where the dialogue spoken by The Ram may as well be coming right from Rourke's own mind. The Ram is a badass, but you can't help but get on your feet and root for the guy, because he is a man out of his time, past his prime, and down on his luck. And for the wrestling fans, you can't help but see in him a piece of every tragic wrestling story of the last several years. The guys like Jake the Snake, who retired as a drug addict and derelict. Like Mick Foley, who sacrificed his body in the name of entertainment. Like Bret Hart, who always demanded respect but saw his career cut short due to injury. Like Terry Funk, who reinvented himself as an extreme icon when mainstream federations deemed him too old. Like Ric Flair, who still bleached his hair, put on the tights, walked the aisle, and lived his character of "The Nature Boy" every night well into his 50's. There's a little of all of those guys in The Ram, and it makes Rourke's performance that much more real and emotional - because man, it rings true.
There are a couple of other really great acting turns in this one as well, particluarly Marissa Tomei as an aging stripper who forms a bond with The Ram. Tomei's character perfectly parallels that of Rourke's - both are entertainers in areas that blur the line between reality and fantasy, both are in lines of work that are a young person's game, both are lonely, distant, and afraid of emotional connection because of the pain it could bring. Tomei really knocks this one out of the park, and her scenes with Rourke really give the movie a lot of its most poignant and memorable moments. Simply awesome performance from Tomei.
Evan Rachel Wood is also good as Rourke's estranged daughter. Her scenes hit home because they seem so completely ripped-from-real-life as pertains to so many wrestlers who neglect their kids due to life on the road. If you've seen the documentary BEYOND THE MAT, you couldn't help but wince at the eerie parallels between The Ram's relationship with his daughter and that of former WWF star Jake the Snake with his own daughter.
Also, give a ton of credit to director Darren Aranofsky. The guy has yet to make a bad film, and seems to only be getting better with each new endeavor. What's so shocking about The Wrestler is that it has a stark, realistic, almost 70's-ish tone that seems a complete 180 from Aranofsky's usual style. Because the direction is not necessarilly showy, I could see Aranofsky's landmark achievement getting overlooked come awards season, but to me I was floored in how the look and feel of the movie reminded me of classic Scorcese circa Raging Bull. Not only are there several classic smaller-scale scenes (the deli scenes are amazing, in particular), but the wrestling matches are well-shot and some, like the hardcore rules match, are shockingly brutal. I also think the script deserves a ton of kudos as well. It's subtle when it needs to be, but hits all the right emotional notes. The wrestling jargon all felt 100% authentic, but most of all, The Ram was written as a real, three-dimensional character, not a cartoon. And the ending was simply pitch-perfect. Combine all that with a really fun soundtrack of 80's hair-metal hits (including awesome use of Sweet Child O' Mine), as well as a moving end-credits Springsteen original (which sure beats Clint Eastwood singing over the Gran Torino credits ...), and you've got a movie that just completely comes together in style, tone, and narrative. The Wrestler is, to borrow a phrase, the total package.
As someone who was raised on a steady diet of pro-wrasslin', I get shaken up whenever I hear of the latest wrestling-related tragedy. But here, finally, is a movie that takes the hard-knock life of a wrestler and eloquently dramatizes it, that encapsulates both what is great and what is terrible about the sport. Aside from all that though, this is plain and simply a great movie, up there with the likes of Rocky as one of the great stories of a fighter battling the odds. Certainly, one of the must-see movies of 2008.
My Grade: A