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The Wrestler takes grubby actor Rourke to new heights
Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) shares the bond of being broken and outdated with Randy (Mickey Rourke) in "The Wrestler," a drama about starting over. - photo by Fox Searchlight

‘The Wrestler’

Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

Rated: R for violence, sexuality/nudity, language and some drug use

Running time: 115 minutes

Bottom line: Essential viewing — catch it while you can

There’s something inspiring, beautiful even, about watching an actor rise to the occasion in what is unmistakably the role of his career.

That sensation is overwhelming when watching Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler."

Rourke’s substance abuse and bad cosmetic surgeries have been infamous for years — ever since his career began its slow, tragic decline. He has frequently been referred to as "Hollywood’s Dirty Little Secret" for merely doing in excess what everyone else in La La Land does in moderation.

All the years of abuse Rourke has inflicted upon his own body ironically make him ideal for the role of Randy "The Ram" Robinson.

Once upon a time in the ’80s, The Ram was the most popular professional wrestler in the world. When we meet him, though, some 20 years later, he has fallen into obscurity and poverty. Rather than Madison Square Garden, he now performs in elementary school gymnasiums and attends memorabilia signings along with other has-beens. He lives in a trailer park and can barely make rent.

His skin is scarred on virtually every part of his body, his joints are stiff and brittle and he relies on drugs to maintain what little muscle strength he has left.

Randy is equally scarred on the inside.

He has enjoyed the worship of his fans for decades, yet he is heartbreakingly lonely. He has fallen in love with an exotic dancer named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who is similarly past her prime and looking to start a new life.

However, this heartbreak pales in comparison to the pain he has inflicted on his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). He abandoned her years ago, one of the many sins he committed while enjoying his glory days.

A heart attack forces Randy to face the realization that he must start a whole new life.

So Randy attempts to regain the trust of his daughter, to forge a relationship with Cassidy, to adjust to working-class life and to simply survive. Meanwhile, he struggles to actually leave the ring and his love of performing, which has been as crucial to him as the blood in his veins.

The scenario is a throwback to the down-and-out boxer and wrestler movies that were once quite common among Hollywood films. But director Darren Aronofsky ("Pi," "Requiem for a Dream") and Rourke take what could have been a formulaic character study and elevate it to the level of art.

"The Wrestler" is gritty and distinct in style and refuses to just rehash the old genre. The ending isn’t what we expect, yet it is supremely satisfying.

The supporting performances are excellent. Tomei gives yet another fearless and, shall we say, revealing performance. Wood, continuing to prove she is one of the best young actors in the world, stands toe to toe with Rourke during the scenes when Randy attempts to reconcile with Stephanie.

But from the moment The Ram appears onscreen, Rourke imbues the character with the irrepressible spirit of a man who by all logic should be dead, yet improbably battles on. Rourke and The Ram share a seemingly supernatural will to persevere.

I walked out of the theater knowing I had seen not only the best individual performance of 2008, but also one of the best films of the year.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.