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The Wrestler - Blu-ray DVD / drama DVD / action adventure DVD review
THE WRESTLER Rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America curledupdvd.com rating: 5 stars
Featuring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Mark Margolis, Todd Barry, Wass Stevens
Director: Darren Aronofsky Studio: Fox Searchlight
DVD release: 21 April 2009 Runtime: 111 min.
(2 discs)
Format: AC-3, Color, Dolby, Dubbed, Subtitled, Widescreen, Blu-ray
DVD features: 1080p High Definition, Aspect ratio 2.35:1, Audio tracks (DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround - English; 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround - Spanish), Subtitles (English SDH, Spanish, French), Within the Ring, Wrestler Round Table, "The Wrestler" music video (Bruce Springsteen)

What a quietly exceptional, yet bitterly sad movie this is.

The Wrestler is about a person (actually, two people) whose time for glory has passed yet keeps doing the only thing he knows how to do well. What he does helps (barely) pay the bills; more importantly, it gives him his only sense of identity and self-worth. If he loses that, he might as well be dead.

The film opens on a wall showing one-sheets, posters, and magazine clippings documenting the once-great wrestling career of Randy "The Ram" Robinson. It then cuts to a man in ridiculous green tights, battered and bruised, sitting on a folding chair alone in an elementary school classroom. A promoter in a hockey jersey brings him his cut of the gate receipts that night, less than expected.

The Ram's fall from grace, sadly, is almost de rigueur for the "sport" of professional wrestling. The storylines are scripted, yet it is a mistake to call it "fake". The punches might be pulled, but when a body hits a concrete floor, a body hits a concrete floor.

Such physical punishment takes a toll on everyone who takes up this profession. Many former superstars now work the small-town circuit. Instead of 20,000 screaming fans, they might wrestle for 200 or fewer. Instead of making $50,000 a show, they might make $50. What money they've earned in their glory years is usually gone, spent either on steroids to keep their body at an unhealthy muscular size or on numerous painkillers, all out of their own pocket (in the exceptional round table extra, former wrestler Greg "The Hammer" Valentine asks if it is "fake", then why are wrestlers refused health insurance?). In a sense, those still working are the lucky ones. The number of pro wrestlers who have died in their 30s and 40s is frightening, brought to light by the Chris Benoit tragedy a few years ago.

For playing The Ram, Mickey Rourke should have won the Oscar. His performance never once rings false. It is quite a tour de force, both in quiet, painful scenes with the two women he loves - his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and a stripper with whom he hopes to establish a relationship (Marisa Tomei) - and in the shockingly brutal matches. It really looks at times like Rourke is taking a beating in the ring, including being stapled with a staple gun and thrown through a table laced with barbed wire (one gruesome scene shows Rourke "juicing" himself - the actual practice used by wrestlers to use a small piece of razor to slice open their foreheads).

Tomei, as Cassidy, is quietly terrific as well, and her performance in many ways rings as true as Rourke's. In the making-of featurette, director Aronofsky makes an insightful and eloquent comparison between professional wrestlers and strippers:
"They use their body to sell themselves; they are selling a fantasy to their audience; they use fake names; age is their worst enemy."
It is clear she feels an attraction for Randy (she even offers him her real name, Pam), especially after he defends her from some drunken young men having a bachelor party who insult her over her age. She is just as much a performer as The Ram and still feels she must walk that tightrope between keeping the illusion real and revealing her true feelings.

The film makes brilliant use of late '80s "hair metal" music for its soundtrack. Classics from bands such as Ratt, Accept, Quiet Riot and Guns 'n' Roses play on the soundtrack like an elegy - Randy and Cassidy cling to these songs as they are from their time of glory, when they were younger, more beautiful, and loved by the world. In another sad but beautiful scene, Randy connects one final time with his daughter (whom he burned his bridges with years ago). They walk along a boardwalk and remember the past great times they had there, how much fun they had. Fittingly, the boardwalk is boarded up.

Like the entire film, the ending feels real and inevitable. The final shot is perfect: admittedly ridiculous on the surface, yet surprisingly sad and poignant as well.

The film gives an amazing amount of detail about what happens backstage before a wrestling match. The men gather together in a school classroom or the backroom of a local American Legion post. The warriors are paired up, and they talk through the high spots they want to hit in the match, about what to expect from the other (even including the aforementioned staple gun). They then go out, literally beat the shit out of each other, then go to the back and get patched up together.

I have to admit that I am a wrestling fan. There is really no excuse for it, yet since WWE Raw has been the highest-rated basic cable show for nearly a decade, at least I know I'm not alone. Maybe it fills some basic need to see violence as entertainment, with the personal "pass" I give myself by knowing it's not "real" (a secondary appeal of wrestling is that at its best, it truly is a "male soap opera" with compelling mini-stories created between two combatants, all to be resolved at the next pay-per-view). This great film gives me newfound respect - and sympathy - for the men and women who wrestle for a living. They must have some compulsion, some need, to put their bodies on the line like this.

I also have great respect for Rourke and Tomei as actors, for they both fully inhabit their characters. Perhaps they could too easily identify with their characters, as (before this film) it could be argued that the best years of their careers were long past. Not anymore.

  • The Blu-ray quality and sound is as sharp as expected, which makes the blood (much of which is possibly real) perhaps a bit much for the squeamish.
  • An insightful, in-depth making-of feature.
  • A video by Bruch Springsteen for The Wrestler.
  • The best feature: a round table discussion with five former wrestling legends: Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, Lex Luger, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, "Diamond" Dallas Page and Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake. As expected, they support the accuracy of what is seen in the film but are pointed in how it is accurate. Luger's mere presence is a powerful reminder of the effect of the extreme drug use by wrestlers as seen in the movie. Luger was once one of the most physically intimidating of all wrestlers; now rail-thin, he is a survivor who speaks at churches about the dangers of steroid abuse.
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reviewed by Trent Daniel
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