Saturday, January 24, 2009

Movie review: The Wrestler

By Rick Morris

Believe the hype. THE WRESTLER is every bit the epic movie that the early reviews had indicated. It stands apart as a completely unique film experience, something completely different from anything you have ever seen before or will ever see again. For that reason, it doesn't do justice to the movie to review it in a standard manner, moving from one aspect to another while utilizing segues, so these points will be listed separately.

^ The movie is shot in the style of a documentary (but not a mocumentary like NBC's "The Office" where the characters know that they are on camera), with a camera following around the protagonist Randy "The Ram" Robinson as he battles through daily life almost two decades removed from his fame as an '80s wrestling superstar. While the script is deliberately vague about certain areas (we are led to believe that his daughter, who he abandoned, turned lesbian and we are also led to believe that his career came off the rails in the '90s because his '80s hair metal persona was completely out of favor then), we know that his life has been a long, slow decline to the point where he has few friends or family around him, he works at a supermarket for a sneering, abusive twit of a boss and he is frequently locked out of his trailer home for falling behind on rent. His life is a sad one and would be even sadder were it not for the fact that his travails are self-induced -- for he refuses to put his prior life behind him. He still wrestles on weekends for independent promotions in the Northeast where rabid fans relive their childhoods by cheering him on. When he moves through the curtains and strides to the ring with his entrance music blaring, it's like time has stood still and he's not in a tiny auditorium with a few hundred fans; in his mind, he's back in the Garden with a sold-out crowd going wild for him. Those times are portrayed during the opening credits as a succession of old posters and wrestling magazine features (including, gloriously, several faked-up versions of the old Apter mark mags!) flash by one after another as a means of portraying Randy's prime years.

[This movie opened in the area where I live on January 23 and I saw it immediately. This turned out to be 25 years to the day that Hulk Hogan defeated the Iron Sheik for the WWF Championship at Madison Square Garden and helped kick off the 1980s wrestling boom in earnest. I found this to be an interesting coincidence. While some have wondered if Mickey Rourke's "Ram" character was based on Hogan in any way, it's only possibly true in terms of the respective characters in their heyday, because Hogan isn't living his present life in the same desperate manner. There are aspects of Lex Luger in the character (perhaps more so in the vein of "life after the big time") and some other old icons as well; you would do well to see Randy as a composite of several of them. The wrestling scenes were all shot at actual independent wrestling shows and I was a bit amused at the end to see Randy wrestling for Ring of Honor. This promotion, easily the biggest independent in the country, prides itself on cutting-edge "workrate" that would not be out of place in a Japanese pro ring and never features the kind of cheesy nostalgia that Randy's character embodies. So that was a bit of an inside joke, whether intended or not. Having said that, ROH is a great promotion and I hope that they can capitalize on some of the run they are getting from being featured in this movie.]

^ We may never again witness the blurring of a character and an actor as we do with Rourke and Robinson in this movie. Like "The Ram," Rourke was an '80s icon, only in Hollywood. Like "The Ram," bad luck and bad choices led Rourke to oblivion. Rourke clearly identifies with his character in this movie to an almost scary degree and he portrays him with a fervor that you could not begin to imagine with anyone else. I'm always entertained by Nicolas Cage, but this movie wouldn't be anywhere near what it is with anyone other than Rourke in the lead role. "The Ram's" quest for redemption in the movie parallels what Rourke has achieved in the film world since the screenplay has hit theatres. Every Oscar voter who doesn't cast a ballot for him for "Best Actor" deserves a staplegun shot to the head (speaking of which, props to Rourke for doing his own stunts, including a hardcore match with the insane Necro Butcher that featured staples being used as you've likely never seen before -- as well as some "blading" in a previous match). Additionally, Marisa Tomei puts a creative spin on the "stripper with a heart of gold" role as Randy's kind-of friend -- and you get to see her "performing" in that role. Bonus!

^ Never before has the behind-the-curtain side of pro wrestling been featured as truthfully in a drama. Some documentaries have explored aspects of this, but the viewer really feels present with Randy in the locker room with "the boys," with all the hilarious and mundane circumstances that are present. The fraternity of the workers is a tight-knit group and Randy is treated as almost a deity in any locker room he inhabits. To understand why this part is so accurate, you must understand the subculture of the independent wrestling scene. Pro grapplers in this world come from three groups: those who were once in the big time and are on their way back down (and big-time one-time stars like Randy are a tiny part of the scene), those who are young and hoping to reach the big time some day and those who are career journeymen who will never make it to the "big time." These wrestlers don't see Randy as a broken-down shell of a man who still tries to relive his glory days on the weekends; they see him as somebody who became one of the biggest superstars in the business, somebody who is a living-and-breathing representation of what can happen if you continue to chase your dreams of glory. The reverence that they show him is touching and accurate -- and especially hilarious in the case of his in-ring opponents. Speaking of the wrestlers, one amusing scene from backstage really made me laugh. Each pair of opponents was huddled together, devising a rough blueprint for the flow of their matches, as is often the case at the indy level (where the promoter only tells them who's winning the match -- in the "big time," promotion employees are actively involved in mapping out the matches). As one heel is suggesting to his opponent that he spend the bulk of the match "working the leg," an overly muscled fellow wrestler is standing watching them in amusement. "Don't work the leg," he chastises them. "Everybody does that. Try to mix it up a little bit. Maybe work the neck." Then he hears somebody calling to him from across the room. "What? Oh, OK." He turns back to the two wrestlers. "Never mind, HE'S working the neck!"

[I can attest to how the indy wrestling scene is portrayed from a brief experience as a ring announcer for a friend who was trying to start a promotion (here's a hint to anyone hoping to ever dabble in the biz: if you own your own tux, you are more likely to be sought after as a ring announcer!). His promotion utilized National Guard Armories and other small-time venues and the occasional former big-timer like Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka did pass through. I saw all aspects of life at that level -- from seeing the wrestlers map out their matches backstage to helping mega-heel "Diceman" Ronnie Vegas get some crowd heat by having him chase me around ringside to hearing an obese special education (apparently) youngster bellow (apropos of nothing) at a bad guy, "You're not the Macho Man! You'll never BE the Macho Man!" Ah memories ...]

^ Because the pro wrestling business is such a bizarre industry, this movie will evoke different reactions from different people. Those who don't understand the business will have greater knowledge, if not appreciation, for it. From my experience, I can say that for those of us who have derived entertainment from it over the years, certain moral questions may come into play. The epidemic of early deaths among wrestlers have long led me to wonder if the fans are enablers when it comes to subsidizing some of the difficult lives these performers often lead. Whether intentional or not, Randy's "doing it all for the fans" mantra was strikingly similar to that of Chris Benoit, a tightly-wound perfectionist who lived for the rabid appreciation of his fans -- and subsequently cracked under the strain of his life and murdered his wife and child before hanging himself. Any movie that evokes thoughts of wrestling's sad cases from over the decades is never going to be embraced by the industry's power structure -- which explains quite well why Vince McMahon found it distasteful, as anything that might cause him to look in the mirror is bound to do.

^ I won't ruin the ending of the movie by spelling it out, but suffice to say that it is grim in what it suggests (but does not completely spell out). Having recently suffered a heart attack, Randy decides as his life continues to crumble stronger than ever that he must defy his doctor's orders and wrestle a 20-year anniversary match with his old nemesis "The Ayatollah" (in real life, a talkative car salesman from Arizona!). Only in the ring can he find the respect and admiration that the outside world denies him at every opportunity. A great performance in this match could lead to much bigger things, he is told, and he places everything in life on this possibility. In Hollywood, it's expected to tie up the ending in a nice, neat, shiny, happy bow and this film refuses to do that. In that manner, it stays true to itself and its subject matter. In Randy "The Ram" Robinson's life, glory and ignominy, admiration and humiliation lived side-by-side at various times. The end of the movie represents that reality completely, as the viewer can either be horrified by Randy's recklessness or inspired by the dedication he feels to the business he has loved all his life (without that love being truly reciprocal). In the parlance of the wrestling business, this is a 5-star movie.

Here's the trailer with Bruce Springsteen's original tune that he wrote for the screenplay:

1 comment:

Tony Mazur said...

I read the opening paragraph to this blog, but that is it. I plan on seeing "The Wrestler" tomorrow, and then I will read the rest of your post.

I cannot wait to see this movie, but I do have an issue with Springsteen's song that is on the movie soundtrack. I personally think it blows, just like everything Bruce has done post-1984.