December 30, 2008

There Will Be Wrestling

There Will Be Blood, released last year, was a movie defined by a performance. Daniel Day-Lewis dominated the film as the treacherous Daniel Plainview, and luckily, he was in almost every single shot. However, at the same time, there was something detached about him. He was animated, absolutely engrossing, and at times, hilarious, but still just a character on a screen. Most moviegoers hadn't grown up near a rig, hadn't spent much time with maniacal oil barons. There was no relating to Daniel Plainview.

But I spent my entire childhood watching wrestling, and I've spent a good portion of my older years learning more and more about their profession. And Mickey Rourke, and his performance in The Wrestler, defines a job, an era, a series of real-life people and in-ring characters as well as humanly possible.

The Wrestler has been compared to Rocky, and that is a mistake for so many reasons. Do not walk into this movie thinking that a good person will overcome the odds to succeed in the end. Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Rourke's character, is not a good person. He's not particularly a bad person, either; he just seems to have spent his entire life devaluing everything but wrestling.

His daughter hates him, and rightfully so, as he sleeps through reconciliation dinners with her after a night of blowing lines and banging groupies. His ex-wife is nonexistent, and his only real companions are the kids around his trailer park, the Randy Robinson action figure taped to his van' s dashboard, and the NES game, starring himself, that he shows off to the same unimpressed kids.

The Wrestler is not about getting your one big shot; "The Ram" had that a long time ago, and for reasons not explained, he blew it. It's not about the intrinsic value of love and family; "The Ram" blew those things, too. In a way, it's about accepting your fate, who you are and what you love.

Randy's place is in the ring; he's not great at dating, fathering, or deli work. In the end, he resigns himself to his fate, and he accepts that resignation not with sadness but with a look of pure joy. He belongs on the top rope, listening to the fans, doing the only thing he appears to have ever been good at in the only place he's ever been respected.

And this is why the movie touches me so much. Anyone who has been a wrestling fan knows what has happened to the stars of years past - everyone but Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair seems to be dead, drunk or legally insane. It's an industry that chews you up and spits you out. As "The Ram" makes clear throughout the film, staying jacked, blonde and tan at an age when none of those things are natural delays not only the aging process but your inevitable retirement from the sport.

But in a way, wrestlers know what they are getting into from day one. Maybe that's why not a lot has been made of all the death, drugs and worse that has come out in the last few years; there's an unspoken bond between the fans, the media, the promotion and the wrestlers that this is a sideshow, a place that only a truly committed person can survive, and a place where the laws and functions of traditional society do not apply.

And it's a place I spent much of my childhood idolizing. The storylines, the matches, the unchained intensity of promotions like Extreme Championship Wrestling (and one of its spiritual successors featured in the movie, Combat Zone Wrestling) - I loved it all. As I grew up, I grew out of watching it on a weekly basis, but I still look back fondly on all the hours I spent enjoying it. And I cringe, sometimes even get upset, every time another favorite wrestler from the 1980s drops dead. I don't know these guys personally, obviously, but I do know that for all they gave fans like me, they deserve better.

So when Rourke gives a performance like this, a tour de force where he is not only scarily realistic but accurately portraying an inhabitant of the old-time wrestling world, it touches me. It'll bring light to an issue, an issue that probably won't change but will be noticed, discussed, and respected for what it is.

A few people behind us in the theater got upset at the ending; they wanted closure. I think you couldn't imagine a more perfect finale. Rourke's face when on the top turnbuckle, tears streaming down his cheeks, soaking in what was, no matter what happened to him, the last truly joyous moment of his life; that was the ending. In that sense, Randy Robinson is a character, just like Daniel Plainview. But the substance of Robinson, the performance of Rourke, and the truly amazing look into a different aspect of the world of professional wrestling; these are things that make The Wrestler something special, that make it the best movie of 2008.

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