- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2008

One of the cruel ironies of professional wrestling is that it chews up and spits out its bulked-up practitioners as so much mangled meat despite being highly scripted with predetermined results.

This unyielding reality is explored in “The Wrestler,” starring Mickey Rourke as washed-up Randy “The Ram” Robinson.

Perhaps no one but Rourke could have captured the sad, misguided essence of the character, for there are unmistakable parallels between Rourke and the film’s lead character.

Rourke was a somebody in Hollywood a generation ago. He was the suave, smoldering figure opposite Kim Basinger in “9 1/2 Weeks.” But he did not play by the rules. He was a hard-living bully who made up the rules as he went along.

He did not protect his acting gift. If anything, he treated it with disdain, as if it were too prissy an occupation for someone so masculine as himself.

He also was a cliche - “difficult to work with,” as it is said in the business. And he was unable to tame his inner tough guy. He put Hollywood on a back burner in the early ‘90s in order to fashion a brief and nondescript boxing career, notable only because of the injuries he suffered and the operations that were necessary to repair his damaged face.

Those injuries - a broken nose and compressed cheekbone among them - lend credibility to his stab in the wrestling ring. His is the face of a tormented soul who has spent a lifetime grappling with his demons. It is a haunting, disfigured countenance that tells of years of abuse and regret.

It could be the face of a professional wrestler long past his prime, with no future and no options, only the distant cheers that bring no comfort.

His is the fate of all too many professional wrestlers, useful to promoters only for as long as their bodies hold up. Inevitably, those bodies betray them. The matches may be orchestrated, but all that choreographed mayhem in the ring takes a physical toll.

That toll is exacerbated by the rampant use of steroids and other pharmaceutical aids. Professional wrestlers are selling an image, and part of that image includes a buffed upper body.

Away from the screaming masses, professional wrestlers lead lonely, dull, even desperate lives. Their travel schedule is grueling. Their contrived competition is steeped in a fantasy that is ultimately unsatisfying, devoid of genuine athletic accomplishment in the traditional sense.

Too often the lifestyle comes crashing down on them, as it did with Chris Benoit in June 2007 when he murdered his wife and son before taking his own life.

The list of pro wrestling’s prematurely dead reads like a vast cautionary tale. Three of the Von Erich brothers committed suicide. Andre the Giant died of a heart attack at 46. Flyin’ Brian Pillman, with empty vials of painkillers near his body, died of heart disease at 35. On and on the list goes.

Rourke channels all these fallen gladiators in the film. He is them, busted and broke, nearing the end.

He, too, has a bad ticker from years of abuse. He is another heart attack away from going down for the dirt nap. He tries to go clean at the urging of his doctor. He gives up the painkillers and steroids and stays out of the wrestling ring.

You know where this is leading, of course. Try as he might to stay clean, Rourke’s character cannot find redemption. He cannot repair the relationship with his estranged daughter. He cannot win over, at least initially, the aging stripper with the heart of gold, played by Marisa Tomei. And he cannot escape the clutches of professional wrestling, even if it means dying in the ring.

Unlike his character in the film, Rourke does find redemption with this role. It is said to be the exclamation point to his long-ago promise. He is generating Oscar buzz, reveling in the acclaim while acknowledging his wasted acting years.

That self-awakening often eludes the cartoonish monsters of the mat.

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