If you’ve never enjoyed some professional wrestling, I don’t trust you, and we’re probably not really friends. Let’s start there. I’m a lifelong wrestling fan. In a big way. That’s not what this post is about, but it’s certainly relevant. I don’t spend much time watching it these days (although DVR has allowed me to rekindle my Monday Night Raw habit), but I follow just about everything that’s going on in the industry. I wrote a play about professional wrestling (as a matter of fact, I ‘ll be workshopping that play in Chicago in three weeks). I kind of think it’s the most underutilized, underrated dramatic art form in the United States. So while I might not be the exact target audience for The Wrestler (I tend not to love obvious Oscar bait flicks), I’m pretty close. I saw it last night. I don’t do reviews, but…I guess this is kind of a review. With bullet points. And spoilers. And I’m going to just talk about the movie as if you seen it, which probably means this won’t make sense to a lot of you. Whatever. It’s a blog.
- Mickey Rourke is as good as everyone says. He looks like a broken-down wrestler, and that’s massively important in a film like this. He looks a ton like Jerry Lynn actually, which lends credence to the rumors that Ring of Honor (probably the best wrestling company in the US — and a big part of The Wrestler) is going to run a film-based angle with Lynn. I won’t go too deeply into why Rourke (or Marisa Tomei for that matter) is so right for this movie, but the casting is spot-on.
- There’s a lot of mediocre writing here, especially in the relationship stuff. Yes, we get it: he’s old, he’s alone, he’s fallen from the top of his game down to a sad workmanlike existence. He wants companionship. We get all that, and we get it right away — but the dialogue beats the point home over and over. There are chunks of this movie that are just subtextless and dreadful, although the sincerity of Rourke and Tomei elevates the dialogue.
- And here’s the important stuff: they get the wrestling right. Really right. Pro wrestling, like most professional sports (and while it’s theater now, not sports really, it’s still sports, you know?), is about male camaraderie. This movie gets that. The beauty of professional wrestling is that the guys who look like they’re kicking the crap out of each other are actually protecting each other, even when stapling dollar bills to each other’s foreheads. Wrestling is about trust, compassion even, teamwork and community — the scenes where the indie guys are planning out the night’s matches drive this point home simply and beautifully. Rourke’s character gets a round of applause from the boys in the back after every match — that’s the kind of love and respect that makes people do the horrific things to their body that these guys do.
Ultimately, there’s too much of bullet point two for my tastes and not nearly enough of bullet point three. Every moment this film spends on something other than wrestling feels kind of generic, like we’ve seen it/heard it before, and even the solid, heartfelt performances don’t take things to any new ground. But man, the wrestling — I’m biased, I know, but when the wrestling sequences are going on, I felt like I was watching something I had never seen on a big screen before. I can only imagine what that must feel like if you’ve never been a fan.
In the Bill Simmons article I linked to above, he talks about the film’s final sequence: Rourke’s last match and the speech he gives before it. It’s a great moment, but the moment directly before it was the one that really won me over. Rourke’s just made his peace with returning to the ring. He’s basically turned his back on Tomei, given up on his life outside of wrestling, and made up his mind to die on the mat (literally and/or figuratively). His music starts: Sweet Child O’ Mine — and it turns out to be absolutely perfect entrance music: bittersweet, screeching, wistful, nostalgic, hard-rocking but still sad, a reminder of what Axl used to be, what Randy “The Ram” used to be, what Mickey Rourke used to be, what wrestling used to be.
And he makes his way down the aisle, and the fans give him love, and his opponent gives him love, and folks — that’s all anybody ever wants anyway.