Monday, February 23, 2009

The Wrestler Review

It’s the sort of thing one picks up through osmosis, pro wrestling. You may turn a blind eye to every bout of pretend pub-fighting that occurs on Smackdown come Friday night; you may turn a blind ear to every comment around the water-cooler come Monday morning. But if your friends are into it, you will succumb. At night it crawls into your ear, camps out in the Eustachian canal, and refuses all eviction notices. Pretty soon you will know what a ‘heel’ is, what a ‘face’ is, why nobody does a piledriver on Hulk Hogan anymore, and why Chris Benoit is now referred to only as ‘a certain Canadian’ (may he rest in peace, the murdering bastard). The trivia is as fascinating as it is- well- trivial.

It’s the kind of thing that could only have been born in the good old US of A, where even genuine sportsmen step up to bat to their own theme tune. It’s a world where the sport has taken a back seat to the spectacle. And it’s this which makes for such thrilling viewing, and such harrowing drama when it all goes wrong. A glittering façade of high-flying moves, memorable catchphrases and predetermined endings- but what does it hide?

The Wrestler opens with scenes of an aging Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke) recovering from a small show in a school gym in the backwoods of Nowheresville, USA. He pants. He pukes. His glory days are fifteen years in the past, and he’s got no insurance scheme. The promoter appears to give him his fifty bucks. He’s been screwed again.

My God, breathed the wrestling fans in the audience. It’s too real. At last, here was a vision of the seamy side of ‘the business’ that they recognised. Rourke is a likeable screw-up who loves what he does even though it’s literally killing him. His life is so tough that at times it’s hard to watch, but he makes the best of it with admirable good humour and attitude. He befriends a stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold (Marisa Tomei) and tries to get in touch with his long estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). If all this sounds a little like Oscar fodder…well, it really is. If the schmaltz is a little heavy and frequent to be overlooked, then at least its well-handled schmaltz, with just the right amount of humour to boot. This is truly the only film featuring the ‘Necro Butcher’ that you can take your girlfriend to see. Rourke is amiable, and we want him to have some measure of success, though we know it won’t be anything unrealistic. It’s like a Rocky you can take seriously.

Wrestling fans know what they don’t want, and they’re pretty vocal about it. They know what happens to washed-up wrestlers in real life (they’ve seen them ‘perform’ at Neptune stadium), and you can’t sell them a Hollywood ending in this kind of story. The film doesn’t even try. It keeps its cred, even among the diehards, by getting all the details right. These guys know how wrestling works at the highest levels, and more importantly, at the lowest levels. The fights are convincing and accurate (more than you can say about this weeks’ Smackdown, probably). The crowd chants are cruel and thrilling as they are at a real event, and oddly infectious. You will laugh, cheer, stamp your feet and wince in pain. There is great enjoyment for fan and neophyte alike to be had from this peek into the bizarre demi-monde of pro wrestling.

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