Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic – Mickey Rourke is The Wrestler…

After years of awful, hokey wrestling films like No Holds Barred, Body Slam, and the horrid Ready to Rumble, fans of the squared circle can finally enjoy a gritty, moving story on the silver screen, the December 2008 sleeper hit The Wrestler. Mickey Rourke delivered a tour de force, Golden Globe-winning performance as Randy “the Ram” Robinson, supported by solid work by Marisa Tomei (also nominated for a Golden Globe award) and brilliant direction from Darren Aronofski.

TODAY’S ISSUE: The Wrestler.

Rourke’s Randy the Ram character was once a famous pro wrestler in a bygone era (were the 1980s really that long ago? It’s hard to believe…), but his prime years are now behind him. Still, the Ram pushes his aging body to the limit on the independent circuit, performing for smaller groups of fans then he did during his heyday. While smaller in number, those indy fans appreciate his efforts and respect him immensely for his contributions to the business and the sacrifices he’s made in the name of entertaining them year after year. These fans are dedicated to old school grappling and the warriors who survived the wars of yesterday to keep working, regardless of their age and the toll taken on their bodies.

When the Ram is in locker rooms or in front of wrestling crowds his life is in perfect harmony, and the brotherhood of the boys, the adoration of his fan base, and the sense of accomplishment he gets from performing for live crowds all feed his soul. However, when he’s away from wrestling his personal life is, sadly, less than desirable. His twenty-something daughter won’t talk to him, he doesn’t have much money, and he has few friends outside the business. His only meaningful interaction with other people comes in the form of his odd friendship with Tomei’s Cassidy, a slightly seasoned stripper who obviously cares about him a bit more than the average customer, and a group of neighborhood boys who still idolize the Ram and join him for video games or play-wrestling from time to time.

Since the only place Ram can be at peace is at a wrestling show, it’s no surprise that wrestling is the one thing taken away from him. Following a gruesome hardcore battle against the Necro Butcher at a CZW show, he suffers a heart attack and is rushed to a hospital. Randy is forced to retire after bypass surgery; the years of steroid abuse and bumping have destroyed his body, and any further wrestling would be life threatening to the aging gladiator. As you might guess, “civilian” life is horrible for the Ram, and his goal becomes to wrestle one last match against his greatest opponent to commemorate a classic contest between the two that die-hard fans still talk about in the same breath as Savage/Steamboat from WrestleMania III and Flair/Sting from Clash of the Champions I.

Like the original Rocky, the script had a touch of magic. Audience members quickly begin to support the Ram, hoping to see him happy and rooting for him to overcome his ailment and make it back to the ring for the final curtain call to which he is entitled after decades of sacrificing his body for the fans. I knew it was coming, so I was surprised when my own heart sank while Randy’s seized up on him, even though the premise of the film was “an aging wrestler who has suffered a career-ending heart attack can no longer do the one thing he loves; witness his attempts to beat the odds, defy his failing health and come back to the ring for one final showdown against his greatest rival”. So I should have been ready for it when Randy fell ill, but instead I cringed and crossed my fingers for him. Only phenomenal writing, acting, and directing can affect a viewer that way when he knows what to expect.

When the Ram reluctantly called booker after booker from a pay phone to cancel his scheduled appearances because he simply couldn’t risk wrestling again, I wanted to pat the poor guy on the shoulder and buy him a beer. When Randy’s boss at the grocery store treated him awfully, made fun of his life as a wrestler, and took pleasure in demeaning him, I wanted to see the Ram haul off and slug that arrogant little bastard. When he was forced to beg this smug store manager to give him more hours so he could make ends meet, I felt so badly for Randy. This was no way for a once famous performer to end up, but it was truly a case of art imitating life; many former pro wrestlers who are now past their prime have been forced to take regular jobs to scrape by in near-poverty, although they were once on top of the world. That part of the film was beautifully performed by Rourke and exceptionally well written. I believe I felt sorry for this fictional character partly because so much of what he endured has actually happened to men who used to be heroes to us wrestling fans around the world. Talk about touching a nerve.

Thanks to the movie’s authenticity, The Wrestler plays more like a documentary than a work of fiction, and it’s eerily similar to many of the sad tales of big time wrestling stars from the 1980s. The amazing attention to detail, spot-on realism, and nifty in-ring work and physical appearance of Rourke make it easy for wrestling fans to lose themselves in this emotional roller coaster. With his chiseled physique, slow, pained stride, overly bleached hair and overly tanned skin, Mickey Rourke truly looked like a wrestler in his forties who still takes indy dates. He sort of reminded me of Jerry Lynn, a tough old dog who’s endured the wrestling wars and is still able to entertain fans several nights a month.

Rourke is a legitimate tough guy himself, having once been a pro boxer. It’s been said he actually took his own bumps and learned enough basics that when the Ram was “working” during the in-ring scenes, it was actually Mickey Rourke wrestling his opponents. That added to the realism throughout the film, as did the attention to detail with which the boys plotted their matches backstage, Randy making his “blade”, and the promoter going down the card before an event. It was like drawing back the curtain of a real wrestling show. I’ve also heard Rourke actually gigged himself when they showed a close up of the Ram ripping his own brow during a match, and it certainly looked like it could have been a real blade job. I realize it’s Hollywood, but I wouldn’t put it past this film, with its very realistic approach, to have Rourke actually slice his own forehead on camera.

People in the wrestling business who really know something, like NECW owner and former Paul Heyman protégé Sheldon Goldberg, have commented on how realistic the locker room and in-ring scenes were. They also said the poorly attended fan-fest was so true to life that when the wrestlers set up their gimmick tables in hopes of making a few bucks and reliving their glory days, but hardly anyone showed up (and an ancient grappler even fell asleep at his table), it was so frighteningly accurate that it was downright sad to watch. Some critics have already called this Rourke’s career resurrection, and I can’t argue. The man lost himself in the part and at times while reciting dialog on camera he seemed to be talking about his own acting career instead of Randy the Ram’s wrestling career.

Thankfully The Wrestler held nothing back; rather than glorify the truth it showed the seedier side of the business, with grapplers peddling an assortment of steroids and other deadly substances with a pharmacological knowledge that would shame chemists, and the Ram was no exception. He lived exactly the same way many pro wrestlers do today, or have in the recent past. In fact, when the doctor warned Randy about stopping all the harmful activities in which he’d been involved for decades, I couldn’t help but reflect on the endless list of too-young wrestlers who have snuffed their own flames in the past several years, and I really didn’t want to see the Ram go down that road. When he vowed to clean himself up, I was firmly in his corner, willing him to take better care of himself and get healthy again. But like a tragic Shakespearean figure, just when Randy patches things up with his estranged daughter, who seems generally happy to have her father back in her life, the Ram’s nasty habits cause him to blow it all again, choosing a night of cocaine and sex with a young female fan over the dinner plans he had with his own child. The Ram doesn’t change at his core, and that helps all of us imperfect, flawed fans to identify with Rourke’s personification even more. That’s terrific character development, folks.

Speaking of characters, it was amazing seeing Dylan Keith Summers, better known as the Necro Butcher, interact with the Ram, a respected veteran wrestler, in a very true-to-life fashion. Necro called Ram “Sir” over and over during their backstage planning session before their match, and was extremely polite when recommending the spots for their impending bloody war. The fraternity of wrestlers places a great deal of emphasis on respect for your elders and the folks who paved the way for your career, and I have no doubt this is exactly how two guys from different eras interact when planning a match. It was surreal seeing Summers as himself, preparing to tear through the curtain in character but first working out the notes backstage for the violent piece of music he and the Ram were about to perform.

Former WCW superstar Ernest “the Cat” Miller co-stars as “the Ayatollah”, Ram’s greatest opponent from back in his heyday, against whom Randy had the classic match so long ago. With the 20th anniversary of that famous battle approaching, an indy booker wants to promote a rematch between the Ayatollah and the Ram which will give Randy closure, one final payday, and a chance to ride off into the sunset at peace with himself and his career, if only he can make it to the match and be healthy enough to actually go through with it. The Cat rounds out the supporting cast along with plenty of other real life wrestlers, including reigning ROH Champion Nigel McGuinness, Claudio Castagnoli, Ron “the Truth” Killings, Larry Sweeney, Giovanni “Romeo” Roselli, Toa Maivia (who may or may not be the Rock’s cousin), Brian “Blue Meanie” Heffron, and the legendary Luscious Johnny Valiant, along with dozens of others.

In case you haven’t seen The Wrestler yet and still want to, which I highly recommend, I won’t spoil the ending or tell you if the Ram actually makes it to the big return match against the Ayatollah, but I will say the movie takes you on a ride you won’t want to get off. By the time the credits start rolling, like a crowd witnessing a great match that goes to a time limit drawn, you’ll find yourself craving five more minutes.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

p.s. – “Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash.” – General George S. Patton

Elsewhere on Pulse Wrestling this week…

Phil Clark discusses Jeff Hardy’s surprising WWE Championship reign in The Reality of Wrestling.

Jonathan Kirschner previews CHIKARA’s Revelation-X show in this week’s Chikarticles.

Among other fantastic puro content, David Ditch interviews MMA star and sometime-wrestler Josh Barnett in his latest Puroresu Pulse.

Mark Allen takes a look at the field of 30 for this year’s Royal Rumble in Historically Speaking, then returns for part 2 of the Titan Tower Massacre, a look at the recent house-cleaning in WWE.

Jake Zeigler reviews Ring of Honor’s Glory By Honor VII on DVD.

Raffi Shamir scans Titan’s web-based content for you in this week’s DotCom Delivery.

Ms. Norine “Cold As Ice” Stice brings the Friday night funk in her Real-Time SmackDown! Report, after which newcomer Victor Malar offers his own 10 Thoughts on SmackDown! for your edification.

Finally this week, Scott Keith looks back into the sands of time for another Smark 24/7 Rant, this one for a WWF show in Madison Square Garden from October 28, 1989.

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