I still remember the first time I found out professional wrestling was fake. It was junior high school when one of our classmates said he saw Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior get into a limo together. These two were supposed to be mortal enemies in the ring and they were sharing a ride together?! What?! You mean they really like each other?! Or at the very least, they were co-workers. That was their job. What "The Wrestler" taps into is what happens when one of those cats doesn't know when it's time to let go.
Back in his heyday, wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) was an icon in the ring. His image immortalized in action figures and video games, he would headline arenas across the globe. Twenty years later, those glory days have passed, and Randy is forced to earn his keep by brawling before handfuls of fans in high-school gyms and community centers around New Jersey.
In the wake of a heart attack, the former icon attempts to earn a little extra cash while working in a deli and making an effort to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Yet, despite Randy's continued attempts at convincing local stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) to settle down with him in his humble trailer, the ring still calls to him. Later, when the prospect of a high-profile rematch with his longtime nemesis presents itself, Randy is forced to weigh his mortality against his desire to hear the crowd roar one last time.
The entire movie plays like a documentary. It has the look and feel of it. It is as if we are following Randy around to see what a shell his life has become compared to the high life he used to have back in his prime. It reminds me of that documentary I saw a while back about Jake "The Snake" Roberts. It even has a lot of the same parallels as if they used Jake's life as an inspiration for this film.
The sad thing is, this flick could just about be any wrestler from back in the 80s. There were the rare exceptions like Hulk Hogan and...okay, well probably just him. He was the exception to the real as he was able to make a life-long career off his image and persona to keep him comfortable for years to come. For the most part, pro wrestlers are just pieces of meat to the promoters and/or WWE owner(s) who are the ones making the real money. Once their bodies start breaking down, they are discarded and are destined to live in obscurity to which they are not accustomed.
There's a quote that Ram gives at the end which sums up his entire life. As Cassidy tries to talk him out of the reunion match with the Ayatollah (Ernest Miller), the Ram plainly tells her "The only place I get hurt is out there". It turns out that the adrenaline of that life in the ring is all that most of them ever knew. Real life is more dangerous for them because they can't face the reality of just being a normal person as opposed to an adored idol. They are willing to mentally look past the physical toll it takes on their body to get that rush back.
You don't have to be a fan of pro wrestling to appreciate the drama of "The Wrestler". This could be the film of any pro athlete that has been out of his prime for years and years and yearns for the spotlight. It's more a tale of how a man copes with the reality that he is getting older and no matter what he does, no matter what drugs he take, he can never get those glory years back. The older us guys get, the more we all experience that similar feeling in some manner.
My rating: A-