mickey.jpgRandy “The Ram” Robinson is a broken-down hack, prolonging his former pro circuit glory days with the help of drugs, booze, pain-killers, and sheer grit. As embodied by former wunderkind Mickey Rourke, The Ram is a born loser who knows how to do just one thing — thrill the suckers who want to see blood. And that thing has taken a shattering toll on his aging body and squandered soul.

The Wrestler is about as close to the center of that blood-splattered ring as most of us will ever get, and director Darren Aronofsky dives into the low-rent New Jersey wrestling circuit like a Quentin Tarantino in his prime. Rourke gives himself utterly to the camera, every scar, every trick, he doesn’t flinch about revealing his character’s sweetness, good-heartedness, despair and decline. While it’s his outrageous physical appearance — the stringy blonde locks, the mangled muscles — that we’re supposed to read, it’s Rourke’s husky, intimate, desperate voice that stayed with me long after the film was over and The Boss was singing over the credits.

The grey northeast never looked more wasted or lonely — the exact metaphor for Rourke’s character. As past his prime as the depressed suburbs he haunts, The Ram tries to get something goin’ with a friendly, lap dancer, played with precise street wisdom and high-mileage fatigue by Marisa Tomei.

A sudden brush with mortality prompts Randy to seek out his long-estranged daughter, a fiercely bitter Rachel Evan Wood, and the scenes between them along the Jersey shore are among the richest in this 21st century answer to Raging Bull. But Rourke, good as he is, is no DiNiro. And even the aching scenes in which he asks his daughter for a second chance, reminded me of how much more I was moved by a similar scene in Brokeback Mountain, a scene played by the late, great Heath Ledger.

And Rourke’s no Heath Ledger either. Rourke impressed me, but he didn’t move me. [Probably because the trailer for this film not only ruined its dramatic impact, but actually used up all the best scenes – leaving the actual film with way too much flatness.]

For those with the stomach, The Wrestler is a reality glimpse into the almost incomprehensible pain inflicted by uneducated men upon each other in the name of making a living. The tanning salons, hair treatments, steroids, gyms, meaningless day jobs, and even more meaningless barroom nights — this film, and this role were tailor-made for come-back Rourke, amazing here and who last charmed me as a spunky loser of epic proportions in The Barfly.

Whether, as my friend, filmmaker Saul Landau comments, this film is a metaphor for the decline of the West, and specifically of the United States as a moribund sound and light show with its glory days long gone, I have yet to decide. But I’ve known more than a few Randy “The Ram” Robinsons. Sweet guys who somehow couldn’t get it together to move on, to move up – and so they keep circling the same lousy gig they’ve been at for years. It’s not much, but at least they know the territory.

It’s usually lit by flourescent lights, packaged in plastic and perpetually late with the rent. See The Wrestler and you’ll remember exactly why so many greats from New Jersey left the Garden State a long time ago. (photo:Niko Tavernise)