By Steve Warren Contributing Writer

The bruiser is back: Oscar-worthy acting in ‘The Wrestler’

RAM’S REUNION: Rodney (Rourke) searches out his estranged lesbian daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood
Opens: Friday, Jan. 9 at the Angelika Mockingbird.
1 hr., 45 min.        R

Everybody loves a comeback. And "The Wrestler" gives you two for the price of one.

First there’s the plot, about Randy "The Ram" Robinson preparing for a 20th anniversary rematch of the biggest bout from the height of his career, against "The Ayatollah," who now runs a used car lot in Arizona. Randy’s been doing part-time work but still wrestles for his few remaining fans in his small New Jersey hometown, where the kids love him but his trailer park landlord won’t give him credit.

Then there’s the comeback of Mickey Rourke, who plays "The Ram," into as sure an Oscar nomination as exists this season (despite his homophobic remark in November about a journalist who pissed him off). He’s been edging back into Hollywood, most notably in "Sin City," after a virtual absence of a decade-and-a-half that included a brief boxing career. While he may self-destruct again, he’s riding high for the moment on this career-best work.

Is Rourke playing himself? Maybe.

Does it matter? Hell, no.

They say that’s the hardest thing for an actor to do, that most feel more comfortable playing characters far removed from themselves.

Randy doesn’t have much of a life apart from wrestling. His only "friend" is a stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), whose "dances" he can afford when he can’t pay the rent. But his attempts to connect on a personal level are rebuffed because of her rule against mixing business and pleasure: She won’t date the customers.

Cassidy is tempted to break her rule for Randy. She’s past her sell-by date, and young men’s love of cougars doesn’t extend to strippers. But she’s not ready to admit that Randy’s her best option, even when they bond over a shared love of ’80s rock.

When he plays the lonely card, Cassidy encourages him to look up his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). He finds her living with another young woman and assumes she’s a lesbian, although it doesn’t bother him. Apologizing for abandoning her he pleads, "I’m an old, broken-down piece of meat, and I’m alone. I deserve to be alone. I just don’t want you to hate me."

Much of the early part of "The Wrestler" is taken up with two highly energetic matches between Randy and opponents who plan their scenarios with him in advance. Non-followers of the "sport" (about as sporting as Sarah Palin hunting wolves from a helicopter) may be shocked at how wild and brutal it appears.

After the second match, Randy suffers a heart attack, which requires a bypass. His doctor tells him he must stop taking steroids and that returning to the ring would be a bad idea. Randy tries to retire but when he blows his chances with Cassidy and Stephanie he realizes there’s no life for him outside the ring, even if it kills him.

The plot is very simple, "The Wrestler" being mostly a character study. It’s the kind of role an actor can’t live without, even if it kills him.

Randy has a signature move, the "Ram Jam," where he climbs to the top rope and leaps on his fallen opponent. Rourke doesn’t have anything so simple to fall back on, unless it’s the truth. He just inhabits the character and lets the camera suck the truth out of him. However he does it, it works, with the wrestling stunts adding extra force to a tour de force.

On Sunday, NBC airs "The 66th Annual Golden Globe Awards."

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association didn’t nominate Milk" for best movie or best direction. But if Sean Penn, pictured, nabs the award for best dramatic actor for his breathtaking portrayal of Harvey Milk, then it looks like he’ll be a shoo-in for the Oscars.

Steven Spielberg will receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award. This year’s presenters include Drew Barrymore, Glenn Close, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jake Gyllenhaal, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Lopez, Amy Poehler and Chris Rock.

— Daniel A. Kusner
Airs Jan. 11 at 7 p.m. in NBC.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 9, 2009.

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