I’ve never watched wrestling in any of its forms, whether it’s the Greco-Roman style in the Olympics or the WWE style “professional” wrestling where they whale on each other with folding chairs. But I have watched every “Rocky” movie several times—even the dreadful fifth one—so I can use that as a point of reference.
In every “Rocky” movie—except the fifth one, which is why it was so terrible Stallone did essentially a do-over with “Rocky Balboa”—perennial underdog Rocky gets into a fight no one thinks he can win. Even if he doesn’t win, at least he proves he’s no pushover and that in itself is a victory. Whereas the “Rocky” series is full of uplifting underdog victories, “The Wrestler” takes a different tack by showing there are some fights you can’t win, especially when that fight is against yourself.
Back in the 1980s Randy was known as “The Ram”, one of the hottest properties in professional wrestling. Around the same time the hair metal he loves died out, so too did Randy’s career. Twenty years after his hey-day in a match with “The Ayatollah” Randy is a broken down sack of meat pumped full of steroids and carrying the scars of numerous stunts gone wrong. He lives in a trailer park, except when his landlord locks him out for nonpayment, otherwise he sleeps in a van. His closest friend is an aging stripper at a local club; he has a daughter he hasn’t seen or talked to in well over a decade. For money he performs at small places like American Legion clubs with other over-the-hill or never-were wrestlers and works part-time unloading trucks at a local supermarket.
That Randy still maintains his long, stringy blond hair and tan—spending much of the money he earns on peroxide and fake tans—and still keeps Cinderella, Motley Crue, and AC/DC cranked up in his van (a Dodge Ram of course) says something about his character; Randy is stuck in the past. He’s forced to confront reality after a particularly gory fight triggers a heart attack. The doctor tells him that any more wrestling and he could die.
With this wakeup call, Randy tries to turn around his life. He takes a job at the deli counter of the grocery store, makes inroads with Pam the stripper, and attempts to reconnect with his daughter—who is a lesbian, maybe because she never had a strong male role model. If this were a “Rocky” film we know he would get the girl—both of them—and turn things around. But this isn’t a “Rocky” film.
Though the movie is about a wrestler living in the past and addicted to the glory and celebrity of it, the film could be about most anyone with an addiction. Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, food, or other things, a lot of people have gotten to the same point as Randy where they know they have to make that change, but face the temptation of one more joint, one more drink, or one more burger. That I think is where “The Wrestler” succeeds, in that it’s a human story even if it’s not a very happy one. Let’s face it, a lot of life isn’t happy.
A lot has been said about Mickey Rourke’s performance, but I didn’t see it as too different from Stallone’s in “Rocky” though Rourke doesn’t have that same punchiness to make him as lovable. Whether he was better than Sean Penn in “Milk” I really can’t say; I’ll leave that for the Academy to decide. The other actors do well enough in their limited, albeit largely cliché roles.
One disappointment is that at the beginning and throughout the film you never see The Ram in his glory days, just some newspaper and poster shots during the opening credits. You only see him when he’s broken down. It might have been nice—especially for those of us who eschewed wrestling in the ‘80s—to have seen that to get a better sense of just what it is Randy loved so much. Maybe that was too expensive to shoot, or something. Just a minor flaw in an otherwise great film. Even if you aren’t into sports movies, this is a film to watch.
My score: 3 of 4 stars
Metacritic score: 81