Mickey Rourke might have been born to play the role of Randy Robinson, an ageing wrestler grappling as much with his emotions as his opponents. As an actor who has been on the ropes for much of the past decade, turning his back on the big screen in favour of a solid but uninspiring career in boxing and years in a rumour mill, filled with talk of plastic surgery, impossible moods and failed relationships, he could be said to be facing up to many of the same issues as his on-screen alter ego, particularly the march of time and the lack of cash flow.

Then again, maybe like Brando, with whom he shares a sort of rebellious, testosterone-drenched kinship, he is finally putting his unbelievably powerful acting talents back to good use. Whatever the reason, this film marks the mother of all comebacks for the man who raised a million women’s heartbeats with his raw, brooding sex appeal in the likes of Rumble Fish and 9 ½ Weeks. If Oscar doesn’t come knocking it will be a travesty.

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Randy "The Ram" is on the skids. The glory years of the Eighties, which saw him used as a model for everything from plastic toys to video games, are firmly in the past. He still entertains the crowds, but at great personal cost. Pumping himself full of steroids and painkillers, he clambers back in the ring night after night, all tape and tablets, because performing is the only life he knows. And thanks to Darren Aronofsky’s startlingly close camerawork, we climb in with him, take the hits as he smacks into the deck and feel the sweat run in rivulets from his face.

Outside the auditorium, The Ram hefts boxes to make ends meet, plays with the neighbourhood kids but, essentially, lacks any real connection outside of the camaraderie of his fellow wrestlers. The closest he comes to contact is down at his local lapdancing bar, where Marisa Tomei’s poledancer Cassidy, also in the twilight of her performance career, has a sweet spot for this shaggy hunk.

Like all good films of this sort, The Ram finds himself looking into the abyss after his health takes one smackdown too many, but is it too late to consider an alternative way of life and reconnect with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Rachel Evan Wood)? This description of the plot makes these emotional manoeuvres sound trite. In reality, they are anything but, as Aronofsky makes a virtue of the film’s surface simplicity.

Rourke brings a staggering amount of emotional weight to the role of Randy. This is not a one-dimensional portrait, playing relationships by numbers, but a real, living, breathing human, fully equipped with faults and virtues. Everything about the film has poise and balance. Scenes in the wrestling ring, filled with the sort of showy brutality that makes it so appealing to punters, are perfectly offset by the warmth of the wrestlers themselves (all played by sportsmen within the profession), chewing the fat about what moves to run, what drugs to take.

That the ring is filled with pantomime violence only serves to emphasise the sensitivity of the quieter scenes between The Ram, Stephanie and Cassidy. The screenplay by Robert D Siegel, who is surely going to go on to become a household name in future years, shows its emotions and invites you to reach out to them, rather than trying to manipulate the mood. Matched by understated acting and camerawork that hugs every inch of its protagonists’ faces, inviting you to touch their joy and pain, The Wrestler generates a delicate connection with the audience, rarely achieved on screen these days.

Although offering the visual adrenaline kick more commonly associated with boxing flicks, such as Rocky, it is the wrestling of the mind, which is key to its success. Also, it is liberally sprinkled with humour, although, crucially, never mocks the wrestlers, who are nothing short of modern day gladiators, despite the spandex. As things build to an inevitable, yet unpredictable, climax, it will be all you can do not to rise from your chair and chant, “Ramjam! Ramjam!”, too.

Reviewed on: 11 Oct 2008
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An ageing wrestler tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter, but can he get the ring out of his soul? Plus read what Aronofsky, Rourke and Tomei said about .
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