Film Reviews

THE WRESTLER

By • Jan 14th, 2009 •

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I traveled the United States and two other countries these past two years filming a documentary on legendary wrestler, Bruno Sammartino. I met his brethren; the guys that I was in awe of since I got hooked on wrestling when I was five years old. They are referred to as legends, titans, kings of the ring. I am filled with disappointment and heartfelt sorrow after meeting these men in their living rooms, far from the squared circle. It’s not as if, having met my boyhood heroes, I was turned off by their behavior.

Far from it. The feeling of despair is inescapable since most of these men, who packed arenas with tens of thousands of screaming fans every night of their careers, have nothing to show for it. THE WRESTLER embodies the fate of most of these men.

The story is about Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke), a professional wrestler who is no longer in the big leagues, and Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), an aging single mom stripping in a seedy little bar to get by. Randy works in a supermarket, wrestling for local promotions held in VFW’s and high school gyms, barely scraping together enough money to keep from being evicted from his trailer. Suffering a heart attack and being forbidden to wrestle, he attempts to rekindle a relationship with his estranged daughter, and to start one with the woman he is drawn to, Cassidy. He and Cassidy suffer along similar lines, battling dejection, rejection, and loneliness in their worlds in which a finely chiseled physique is essential to success.

If you are looking for an empty-headed, high-octane sports film, look elsewhere. This film has substance. It provides a truthful look into the casualties of the wrestling business. THE WRESTLER deals with the grim reality of life after the glitz, glamour and fleeting, carefree days of youth are gone. When dreams that were at hand, and the jewel that was life, finally ceases to shine, leaving only a glint of what once was, now scattered in a reality that is sad, alone, and uncertain.

It is common in the wrestling world that small time Indy show promoters hire wrestlers on the way up and on the way down in their careers. Randy, nearing the bottom rung, finds himself in the company of aspiring hopefuls. He is revered by them and he offers them praise and words of encouragement. He battles in the ring, taking beating after beating, and the physical toll is evident.

Typical in this dirty business are the promoters’ claims that the “gate was light,” so when Randy is handed an envelope for his match, his pay is less than expected. There is a great contrast here in how Randy and Cassidy are essentially whoring themselves. Both have their palms outstretched for a paltry payout after prostituting their bodies. But the gratification of the shouting in the arena is what he thrives on, whereas the catcalls, come-ons and demeaning behavior is what she must wrestle with on a daily basis. His body may be, as he states, “A broken down piece of meat.” Yet it’s still in demand. She, on the other hand, must solicit dollars from the patrons and vie for their attention amidst younger girls with her older, less sex appealing body.

The film uses a soundtrack comprised of Hair Bands like Quiet Riot and Ratt to depict the era in which these two characters had their heyday. Over a beer, the duo agrees that that Def Leopard, Guns N’ Roses, and Motley Crue reigned supreme until the 90’s ushered in Curt Cobain who ruined the music scene. As they spout off about the 90’s being a terrible decade, Randy takes the opportunity to make a romantic advance by which Cassidy is caught off guard, becoming Pam, the single mom yearning for companionship. Yet she quickly regains her composure and enforces her “no customers” policy. She is adamant that her stage persona is limited to just that, the stage, and that the outside world and the world of flesh for sale shall never cross. This is a serious juxtaposition with Randy’s battle to have The Ram co-exist in and out of the ring in perfect harmony. Rourke’s character lives and breathes the persona of Randy and corrects everyone with whom he comes in contact when they refer to him by his birth name, Robin. Both must deal with how their stage persona carries into their everyday life.

How the times have changed. Randy is involved in a hardcore match. This is unlike anything that he has seen or been involved with in his long career. It is a far cry from the occasional slicing of one’s own forehead with a razor blade that is commonplace in the sport. Those who oppose the use of steroids in wrestling, or scream unfoundedly that Vince McMahon Jr. is running a pharmaceutical distribution company, may find a greater cause to rally against after watching this hardcore match.

Prior to the bout, he is asked by his opponent, Necro Butcher, if he minds the staples. “What staples?” Once in the ring, the two climb a ladder, crash onto a table and cause one another agonizing pain through the use of barbed wire, tacks, glass shards and the staple gun with which Randy and his opponent pierce one another. There seems to be little if anything here resembling televised professional wrestling.

Aronofsky used an actual local promotion known as CZW (Combat Zone Wrestling), branding itself as, “Ultaviolent Entertainment.” This organization is extremely small in comparison to the stock traded WWE. Yet, these are the promotions depicted in the film and the ones that “bottom feed” from the vast WWE pool. This is not to hurl insults at any of these promotions. Simply, the WWE has become a monopoly and no one else seems to have the bank or the tenacity to do what Vince McMahon Jr. has accomplished.

Ted Turner entered the arena with his WCW and commented to McMahon that he, too, was in the wrestling business. McMahon reportedly replied that he was in the entertainment business, not wrestling. Well, the WCW folded.

The film uses wrestlers, both past and present. Evan Ginzburg was approached by Aronofsky and was instrumental in showing him the ins and outs of the world that is depicted on screen. Ginzburg was the liaison between the core film team and the wrestling world. He also could be credited with casting the wrestlers for the film. From the WWWF days appears Johhny Valiant of Valiant Brothers fame. He is one of the souls that embodies the trajectory of Randy the Ram. Today Johnny is a janitor in a college. Also in the film is Romeo Roselli who wrestled as one half of The Heart Throbs with partner Antonio Thomas. Ernest Miller of the WCW plays the Ayatollah. From TNA is Austin Aries. Paul E. Normous wrestled for ROH. Armond Cecere, known as “Kid USA,” was Rourke’s body double, taking many of the bumps in the ring. Through Indy wrestler Eric Adamz, the contact for Ron Killings of the WWE was made.

Dylan Keith Summers wrestles professionally as Necro Butcher. After viewing his match with The Ram, ou will agree that he is aptly named. Summers was born in 1973 and hails from West Virginia. Picture a balding, long-haired, bearded, somewhat toothless “country” type sporting calf-length frayed blue jeans and a belt to keep them on his anything but athletic physique. His right shoulder sports a huge marijuana leaf. In the wrestling world he is revered as one of the toughest out there. I watched him this past summer in Ring of Honor (ROH) in New York and it was one of the best matches I have seen in years.

The physical abuse is monumental in this business that is referred to as “fake.” The outcome may be predetermined but this is truly the most violent ballet in which talent, technique, and charisma are key to a great performance. One is only as good as his opponent. In the beginning of the film, Randy acquires a blade from a standard shaving razor, conceals it in surgical tape, and cuts himself as he lies in the middle of the ring while his opponent distracts the audience from his self-inflicting head-gouging by quarreling with the referee.

The hard-core match in this film goes beyond anything in the previous paragraph. Its sheer brutality and physical arrest leads to Randy’s heart attack and his newfound desire to establish contact with his estranged daughter played by Evan Rachel Wood. As Randy stands alone, prepared to fade from glory, pull double duty at the Acme Market, and make amends with his daughter, the weight of sustaining an existence in the real world bears heavily upon him. He lives in a world of cassette tapes, VHS, and Nintendo. With minimal income, a damaged body and soul, and clawing for the pursuit of happiness, this seems to be the toughest battle ever.

The elements of the stereotypical wrestler’s life are present. Depicted are the “marks” that pay for autographs and the opportunity to be photographed next to their ring heroes. In the film, a local promoter adds the Ram to one of these ‘legends’ shows. Randy is seated at a table with a Polaroid camera in a stark fluorescent-lit room in which former wrestler Johnny Valiant falls asleep amid 8×10 glossies, Steve Cooper aimlessly stares into space, and another wrestler’s catheter bag fills with urine.

The daily use of steroids, painkillers, and prescription drugs just to survive and keep up the appearance that his body is still strong has Randy, though low on cash, being given an assortment of painkillers and steroids on credit by a monstrous figure.

Another detriment to the wrestler are the one-night stands that disrupt family life by engaging with women known as “ring rats.” In a scene that brings Randy backstage at a show, conversing with wrestler Romeo Roselli, he meets one such creature. What ensues is exactly what led to his personal life toppling when he was a headliner. This lack of better judgment plays a major role in directing the course of the film.

Randy the Ram’s life parallels that of its star, Mickey Rourke. His off-screen antics and hard to work with reputation led to his cinematic demise, after which he pursued a less than favorable career as a professional boxer which devastated a mug that was once quite favored by audiences and possessed the qualities of a handsome leading man.

After winning the BSFC Award and the NSFC Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in DINER in 1983 and with a stellar performance in THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE the following year, his career should have taken flight. After a nomination for an Independent Spirit Award for the leading role in 1987’s BARFLY, he proceeded to fly under the radar until Robert Rodriguez’s SIN CITY in 2005. With various nominations and wins this season for his role as Randy, perhaps the time has come for Mickey Rourke to stand before his peers with Oscar in hand.

Randy’s yearning to sustain a living in the ring to keep himself afloat is more touching and believable than Sylvester Stallone’s in his last ROCKY saga, ROCKY BALBOA. It has been written that Rourke’s powerful performance is solely due to the script hitting so close to home. Possibly his life experiences enhance his ability to draw something from it, but such comments detract from the fine screenplay. The story works because it is real. The truth is that the wrestlers of yesteryear return to the ring to rekindle the experience of the screaming fans, and for the thrill of it all. Most wrestlers when asked why they continue to wrestle answer that it is for the fans. The Randy the Rams of the real world cannot pursue any other career. In real life, many work janitorial or other low wage jobs post ring.

Wrestlers live on the road for years, rarely spending time at home, trying to shelter and feed the loved ones who are never within their reach. For many years, Heavyweight Champion Bruno Sammartino spent 1 or 2 days a month at home with his family in Pittsburgh, PA. Many are victims of failed marriages and estranged children. It’s a sort of reverse institutionalization. Once at home, they cannot function. Specialists in the field of psychology treat a number of athletes as they attempt to adapt to normal home life once retired.

Tony Atlas once told me that in the wrestling business, if you are a major draw, “You can either come out a millionaire or live like a king.” Atlas opted for the latter and paid dearly after his reign came to a screeching halt. He found himself homeless, and survived a suicide attempt. He was blessed to find kindness and love from a woman with whom he is now married. Tony has continued to maintain his impressive frame and is now self-employed as a personal trainer in Maine.

Robert Siegal is credited with writing the screenplay for THE WRESTLER. I was in Garfield New Jersey when he and Darren Aronofsky were visiting a local wrestling show in which Tony Atlas and King Kong Bundy were explaining the way the wrestling business works. The former WWE strongmen said that the wrestling promoters treat wrestlers as a business entities and not as a people. The wrestler is responsible for all expenses including car, plane, meals, hotel, gear, medical, etc. The WWE regards these men as independent contractors rather than employees. This information helps shed light on why the old timers, who did not possess the necessary business acumen, are encountering terrible financial difficulties today.

The harsh truth is that wrestlers are expendable, and in all fairness to promoters such as Vince McMahon, it’s a business. Like Hollywood and the strip clubs that Marisa Tomei’s character dances, fresh faces put asses in the seats. The wrestling business offers no retirement packages, no 401K’s, no health insurance. Absolutely nothing! This goes back to what King Kong Bundy and Tony Atlas were explaining to Aronofsky and Siegal. As a business entity, you must fend for yourself and properly prepare for the future. All the perks of wrestling fame fail to prepare one for retirement.

THE WRESTLER’s final scene is powerful. Its impact can be equated to that of THELMA AND LOUISE and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. The answer to his future is less in the vein of the final episode of THE SOPRANOS and more akin to EDWARD SCISSORHANDS.

With nothing to lose except his life, and with nothing to prove because he is truly alive as the king of the ring, when Randy the Ram jumps from the turnbuckle, taking that leap of faith, it may indeed be his final curtain call — to go out valiantly like a soldier in battle and leave behind his blood-stained hero’s body over which the fans can chant posthumously.

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11 Responses »

  1. A wonderful film and a great performance.

  2. Great performance…great to see Mickey Rourke back

  3. Even though I’m not into wrestling, I loved this movie! Great performances by everyone in the cast.

  4. Fabulous movie! Definately one to see.

  5. Amazing performance by Mickey Rourke.

  6. great performance…so happy to see Mickey Rourke get his well deserving Golden Globe!

  7. How nice to see non-beautiful lead actor doing his job so well. Keep up the good work, Mickey.

  8. Great movie. Touching story of lreal life and after all is said and done, we are just human and the only thing we have left is our heart and soul. Great writeup.

  9. This film touched some really uncomfortable but necessary places in myself. What a powerful experience!

  10. wow Frassetti. interesting & gripping article filled with really cool informative unknown facts..
    just saying thanks for an excellent review. i can’t believe you got to meet all of these guys as they were my childhood heroes also. good luck with your documentary

  11. i shed a tear of happiness at the end when he made the jump. because he went for what he loved. whether it was the end, or not.

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