[Disclaimer – People are oversensitive about movie spoilers these days, so I feel the need to warn you that I will be talking a bit about the plot of The Wrestler. So if you haven’t seen it, consider this an official spoiler warning.]
To say that I was skeptical about all of the critical acclaim The Wrestler has been receiving would be a vast understatement. The idea that there was a critically-acclaimed pro wrestling film starring Mickey Rourke, written by a former editor of The Onion and directed by a guy whose most famous film involves a refrigerator attacking an old woman and the gangbanging of Jennifer Connelly seemed impossible to believe. But people seemed to love the film. Even noted cynic and unabashed wrestling hater Ned Bitters actually wrote the following sentence regarding the film: “The more I think about it, it might even eclipse Rocky in the sports movie rankings.”
Adding to the mystique of the film was the fact that it was impossible to find in theaters. Being an independent film, it was “released” in December so that it could be in the running for Academy Awards, but it didn’t actually get a wide release until last month. Even in January, it was almost like you had to go down to the meat packing district and use a secret knock and a password to actually get inside a theater that was showing this film.
As the weeks went by and the buzz grew, this well-respected pro wrestling film began to become a mythical entity to me – like a unicorn or Bigfoot. People I knew kept reporting sighting of The Wrestler, but the film remained elusive to me. The only proof I had that the film actually existed was grainy YouTube footage and unreliable first-hand accounts of the film.
But last night my fiancée and I finally went and saw the film. Walking into the theater at 8 p.m. on a Tuesday after months of speculation and hype, I fully expected to be let down by the film. I just couldn’t believe that someone actually managed to make a truly great film that focused on pro wrestling. I had been burned too many times in the past by films like No Holds Barred and Ready to Rumble.
However, as soon as the film began, all of my fears and doubts melted away. From moment one, Mickey Rourke gives an amazing performance. I quickly forgot that I was watching Rourke act and truly felt like I was watching a documentary about fallen 80s icon Randy “The Ram” Robinson.
What’s truly amazing to me is how authentic the film actually felt to me. I’ve been watching pro wrestling since before Hulk Hogan bodyslammed Andre the Giant and I went into the film expecting to find fault with the wrestling scenes, but I found none. From his bleach blonde hair and his spray-on tan to his finishing move The Ram Jam, Rourke makes a very believable 80s wrestler. Director Darren Aronofsky’s choice to use real independent wrestlers in the film (including some well-known guys like current WWE wrestler R-Truth and fan favorite The Blue Meanie) and to give the film a grainy documentary feel to it also help to make the wrestling scenes believable.
I was also impressed with the variety of wrestling matches that were shown. The Ram’s first match was a fairly basic one against an incredibly green rookie, which Robinson spiced up by cutting his forehead open with a razor blade that was taped to his wristband. It seems a little odd that The Ram would cut himself open in such an inconsequential match (and the actual forehead cutting was a bit slower and more deliberate than you would normally see in a match since the whole point is for the fans not to catch on to the fact that he cut himself), but it’s not hard to believe that Robinson would resort to cutting himself in order to spice up a match that he felt needed a little extra juice.
The second match shown was what’s often referred to as a garbage brawl, which featured a variety of weapons being used, including a crutch wrapped in barbed wire, a staple gun and even an artificial leg. These types of matches actually do take place, although they are mostly on the outer fringe of wrestling. But they do indeed take place in federations like CZW (which actually exists), the organization that The Ram wrestles that match for in the film. While the match is a bit extreme, it works in the film because it shows just how much The Ram has fallen and how desperate he is to connect with today’s fans and recapture some of his former glory.
The final match against The Ayatollah was also a wonderful throwback to the classic 80s matches that The Ram was known for. The Ayatollah himself is a perfect 80s bad guy – a guy who is clearly American (and who now runs a car dealership) who was slapped with a ridiculous foreign character in order to play on fans’ patriotism. The match had a deliberate 80s pace and featured all of the required spots – including Robinson snapping The Ayatollah’s flag over his knee and the crowd chanting: “U-S-A! U-S-A!” Plus, it was nice seeing former WCW wrestler Ernest “The Cat” Miller playing The Ayatollah, even if he never told the crowd that somebody better call him momma because he was going to lock the doors and whip all of them.
There were so many great moments in the film outside of the wrestling ring as well. All of Rourke’s scenes at the deli with his asshole manager (played by Todd Barry) were fantastic. I loved the inside of The Ram’s rundown trailer, which was permanently stuck in the 80s. His efforts to reconnect with his daughter and to connect to Cassidy, the aging stripper played by Marisa Tomei, were often heartbreaking and painful to watch. The scene where Robinson sits in a mostly empty VFW hall selling his merchandise while surrounded by other broken down wrestlers was gut wrenching.
But while the film certainly taps into universal themes that non-wrestling fans can connect to, in a lot of ways it is a love letter to all of the very real 80s wrestlers who, like the Ram, have seen their fame dwindle and are left trying to adjust to life after the spotlight. Ten years ago, I met King Kong Bundy at a wrestling show inside a high school gymnasium in Glen Burnie, Maryland. He was still talking about his match with Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania 2. In August of 2006, I interviewed Kamala for HoboTrashcan, who told me that he was still wrestling on the weekends, but was driving a truck to make ends meet. So many 80s wrestlers really do still pay the bills by competing in front of small crowds for meager pay.
What’s truly surprising is how uplifting The Wrestler actually is. Even though The Ram doesn’t have much left in his life outside of wrestling, there is still something oddly inspiring about his final match with The Ayatollah. A happy Hollywood ending would have seemed out of place in this dark film, but watching The Ram climb the turnbuckle for one final Ram Jam did leave me with the feeling that he was going out on top.
What’s even more impressive is that Aronofsky and writer Robert D. Siegel have actually managed to make a wrestling film that was truly moving and worthy of all of the acclaim it has received. Then again, I’m just glad to see a wrestling movie that doesn’t prominently feature David Arquette.
Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.