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What's the big deal?
The Wrestler is a sports drama film released in 2008 and was directed and co-produced by Darren Aronofsky. The film follows a professional wrestler who has fallen on hard times and his efforts to return to the big time as well as his complicated relationships with his estranged daughter and his girlfriend. The movie stars Mickey Rourke, Marisi Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood as well as cameos from numerous professional wrestlers. The movie revived Rourke's career after he won numerous awards and nominations in the lead role and the film was universally praised by critics as well as countless figures within the pro wrestling industry. It would go on to earn more than $44 million worldwide and Aronofsky himself considers the film to be a companion to his more popular and successful film Black Swan.
What's it about?
Robin Ramzinski, known to legions of pro wrestling fans as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, is a grappler who misses his glory days of being a star in the 1980's. These days, he mentors younger talent in the ring wrestling in local independent promotions while working part-time at his local supermarket. He is also a regular at a strip club where he has befriended one of the older performers, Cassidy. After a successful appearance for a New Jersey promotion, Randy is offered a lucrative "20th anniversary" rematch between him and his old foe from the Eighties, The Ayatollah. Needing the money, Randy agrees.
After a brutal and bloody hardcore match, Randy suffers a heart attack backstage and is forcing to undergo a heart bypass. Told by his doctor to stop wrestling and abusing steroids, Randy decides that it's safer to retire and work full-time at the supermarket. Cassidy implores Randy to make peace with his estranged daughter Stephanie while Randy struggles to adapt to life away from the ring. Knowing that another match might kill him, Randy begins wondering whether he was too quick to retire...
Robin Ramzinski / Randy "The Ram" Robinson
Evan Rachel Wood
Ernest "The Cat" Miller
Bob / The Ayatollah
Release Date (UK)
16th January, 2009
Academy Award Nominations
Best Actor (Rourke), Best Supporting Actress (Tomei)
What's to like?
Aside from Barry Blaustein's increasingly out-dated documentary Beyond The Mat, there have been few films to peek behind the curtain of professional wrestling and expose the business. While The Wrestler may only focus on one man's experience of the industry, it's his personal story that we are interested in and not the wider wrestling community. However, you totally buy into Rourke and his performance as The Ram due to the level of his performance and the direction by Aronofsky to create as believable a world as this. Yes, the story might seem a touch melodramatic but no story ever followed a guy who lived happily ever after.
Using real, recognisable wrestlers in the supporting cast also helps make this film feel like a blood-soaked and authentic replication of the "sport" and the dark sides associated with it - be it health issues, family relations or even recognition of the performance. The film has some gentle comedy in there but in truth, this is a downbeat look at a man whose greatest talent is also his greatest opponent, one which could even kill him. The film belongs to Rourke as the larger-than-life character in the centre but he gets plenty of support from Tomei and Wood as the two women in his life pleading with him to make the right decision. Like Black Swan, the film illustrates that there is much more going on behind the scenes and immerses us in the blood, sweat and tears that go into each choreographed performance. For fans of pro wrestling, this is as good as it gets - a serious look at a business often treated with disdain or in a comedic manner.
- Among the real-life wrestlers who make cameo appearances are current WWE talent Cesaro, Nigel McGuinness and Ron "R-Truth" Killings, Ring Of Honor champion Jay Lethal, ECW icon and all-round good guy The Blue Meanie and AEW wrestler Chuck Taylor.
- Blading or juicing - when a wrestler intentionally cuts themselves to get blood visiable - is one trick of the business shown in the film when Rourke actually cuts himself open with a concealed razor blade.
- Rourke's decision to use Sweet Child O' Mine by Guns N' Roses as his walk-on music stems from his days as a boxer in the early Nineties when he did the same. With the film's budget being so restrictive, Axl Rose agreed to the use of the song for free.
- Among the film's supporters within the wrestling industry are Mick Foley, Bret Hart, WWE chairman Vince McMahon, commentator Jim Ross and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper who reportedly broke down in tears after a screening.
What's not to like?
The only thing - and I do mean, the only thing - that prevents me for awarding it five precious stars is the same issue that plagues countless sports-based movies and that's predictability. The Wrestler suffers the same problem of being about as surprising as finding a red-necked Republican at a WWE house-show with a crummy sign and questionable hygiene. As each element of the plot is introduced, you can see instantly how the film will approach them which undermines the sense of realism carefully constructed over the course of the movie. The story is, as I've already mentioned, fairly over-the-top and possibly more bleak than it needed to be. And during the emotional final moments, you question what it was that drove you to like Rourke's character because I didn't feel particularly well paid off by the ending.
But as a case study for former wrestlers fallen on hard times (and despite the times, it is still an unforgiving industry), the film is hard to beat. It's just refreshing to see the business treated in an adult fashion instead of being dumbed down to entertain young kids. Like video games, fans of pro wrestling have grown up and probably still enjoy tuning into WWE programming and PPVs regularly. Instead of knee-high kids craving the latest toys, pro wrestling's target audience are older and wiser and more astute to the business than ever before. Here, at last, is a film that rewards them as opposed to showing us clunky comedies with Hulk Hogan or goofy nonsense with David Arquette (see below).
Should I watch it?
Even if professional wrestling leaves you cold, The Wrestler is a gripping and engaging drama that isn't shy about showing us the trauma and impact that the industry has on its performers. From broken families to drug dependency to loneliness, the film is a dark reflection of the inherent showmanship of the business and while it may lack the psychological edge and intensity of Black Swan, I actually prefer this film. It feels more relevant and relateable than Aronofsky's ballet-based drama while Rourke is every bit as great in the lead as Natalie Portman was.
Great For: fans of professional wrestling, professional wrestlers, exposing the business
Not So Great For: supermarket managers, the squeamish, Rourke's future Oscar hopes (if he didn't win for this then he never will)
What else should I watch?
Pro wrestling isn't normally associated with award-heavy dramas like The Wrestler possibly because it is usually the basis for uninspired comedy. Perhaps the most notorious is Ready To Rumble, an awkward misfire of a comedy based in WCW at the time and featuring a large portion of their working roster. In a desperate bid to promote the film, lead star David Arquette was made WCW champion in a real-life wrestling story-line - a decision which fans hated and one which began to signal the demise of the promotion. A similar disaster nearly befall the WWF (as it was known then) during the promotion of No Holds Barred which saw the movie's villain wrestle Hulk Hogan in another poorly-received wrestling story-line.
There are a number of documentaries that examine pro wrestling and its numerous superstars although few that reach a cinematic audience. Beyond The Mat, Blaustein's ground-breaking film, saw a limited cinema release in the UK and captures the then-WWF in a transitional period between maintaining the illusion of wrestling being legitimate (known as kayfabe) and exposing some of the secrets of the business. Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows is a TV documentary that happened to catch one of the most controversial incidents in the history of the business, the Montreal Screwjob. Finally, 2018's Andre The Giant examined one of the industry's most beloved characters, French pro wrestler and actor André René Roussimoff. The TV doc not only follows his life with gigantism but also interviews with wrestling personalities who knew him best. And Hulk Hogan.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox