‘The eighties were great,’ laments on-the-slide wrestler Randy ‘the Ram’ Robinson nee Robin Ramzynski (Mickey Rourke) as he tries to bond outside a lap-dancing club with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), the stripper who might be his last chance for anything like a relationship with someone which doesn’t involve sweaty same-sex grappling in public and high-diving off the ropes in a potentially suicidal manoeuvre known as ‘the Ram Jam’. Rourke, whose cinema heyday was in that decade, might agree with the script, though the Ram – with his dyed-blonde mullet, steroid-swollen physique, cut-rate plastic surgery face, not-so-discreet hearing aid, heavy metal bad taste and dependence on an array of pain-killers – doesn’t really capitalise on that. Indeed, Rourke — an eighties star whose best work was in seventies-style movies (Diner, Rumble Fish, The Pope of Greenwich Village) – isn’t cast ironically as the Ram, as would have been the case if Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger (or even Hulk Hogan or Rowdy Roddy Piper) were playing a Baby Jane version of their former muscular top-of-the-world status. From his first films, Rourke specialised in battered losers like the Ram, and he even has a downbeat boxing movie (Homeboy) on his resumé (not to mention a sideline career as a boxer) that serves as a template for Darren Aronofsky’s portrait-of-a-sports-has-been movie.
It’s a frank, brave and affecting exploration of loserdom – though, like Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, hits bottom early and stays there beyond endurance as all the Ram’s attempts to get back some personal or professional or physical balance bellyflop. This isn’t so much a descent into despair as a study of a man who’s already pinned and – after all the fights fixed in his favour – is never going to get up. In the course of the film, the Ram is locked out of his trailer for failure to pay the rent, tries and fails to reconnect with a daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) he has disappointed for decades, almost convinces Cassidy to break her code and date a client but chooses to play to (and probably die for) his fans rather than commit, is repeatedly confronted with his washed-up status (as signified by a primitive Nintendo game in his honour that local kids sneer at and a beaten-up action figure that isn’t a collectible, and sparse attendance at a local hall autograph fair where he notes that others of his generation have slid even lower – the camera slyly notes the urine bag strapped to the boot of another ex-wrestler), pleads for but walks away from a regular job at a supermarket delicatessen with a sneery pipsqueak manager (Todd Barry) who lords it over him, mumbles and snarls inarticulately about his lot in a mode that might be a dig at Stallone, and has a heart attack after a bout which forces him into a retirement he can’t hack so he gets back in the ring for a reprise of a once-famous bout with a baddie called ‘the Ayatollah’ (Ernest Miller) though we assume it’ll be a fatal stretch. Just about the only punch pulled is that, when he is delayed by a groupie and fails to make a dinner date with the daughter who has given him one last chance, the Ram is able to perform sexually in a club toilet – though impotence would be a more likely side-effect of the steroids-and-battery lifestyle.
The black irony is that no one took wrestling seriously in the first place: in Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight, ur-text of washed-up jock dramas, the boxer hero hits rock bottom when his manager tries to relaunch him as a wrestler, but that heavyweight’s Depth of Hell was the Ram’s Golden Age. We get a lot of behind-the-scenes business as good guys (faces) and bad guys (heels) greet matily in locker rooms and run through the moves they’re going to make in the ring, and a funny bit as a human hulk with a sideline in off-the-book medicine genially displays an astonishing array of the performance-enhancing or pain-killing drugs the Ram needs to get by. The messily choreographed fakery of most bouts doesn’t take away from their punishing, brutal, sado-masochist edge, especially in Jackass-inspired insanity which involves staplers, barbed wire, broken glass and other forms of bodily abuse that suggest a kind of gay s-m performance art Clive Barker might dream up rather than the good ole boy grass roots entertainment image wrestling is supposed to have (a brief chat about The Passion of the Christ also suggests the level of pain that must be involved). Frankly, those Mexican movies in which masked wrestlers take on werewolves, mad scientists and robots aren’t any weirder than this.
The emotional core, at once uplifting and terrifying, is the Ram’s final speech to the only people he has never let down – and who have unconditionally loved him back in return – the wrestling fans who attend his bouts, and for whom he is ultimately willing to die. Aronofsky doesn’t take the easy route of showing us sadistic white trash goons baying for blood as the wrestlers are martyred for their pleasure, but their acceptance of this form of simple, fantasy entertainment (imagine – a sport which always offers the reassurance that the good guys win) involves a willful ignorance of the real cost. The Ram’s ease with children (he nearly wins over Cassidy by being nice to her son) and the disabled (he pays special attention to fans in wheelchairs) is admirable, but suggests he has voluntarily become childlike and physically handicapped by playing out his big smiling all-American lug role to the end.