When you’re a child, other schoolkids are at pains to make you aware that certain things are fake. Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, Pamela Anderson from the waist up… all these myths are shattered at an early age. But as soon as they find out you’re a wrestling fan, all the other children’s stories are irrelevant. It becomes their sole purpose in life to drill it into your head that wrestling is fake. Not a real sport, they say. Watch boxing instead! Watch soccer! Hell, watch figure skating – at least they’re not “pretending”. If it’s fake, surely there’s no point to watching it. And if you do watch it, you clearly don’t know it’s fake, and you’re an idiot, and you’ll never have a real life. Typically, those kids would then walk off discussing the rated-18 movie their parents don’t know they watched, where the villain got his head chopped off by a massive rusty blade. Which clearly wasn’t fake, otherwise they wouldn’t have watched it, right?

Other kids’ idiocy aside, being a wrestling fans does tend to come with a certain stigma – it’s akin to admitting you love pantomime, usually, and people are all too willing to point out the homoeroticism of two men in tights grappling with each other. So it’d be nice to think that The Wrestler‘s Oscar buzz could come as some sort of vindication, an indication that maybe there was something worthy about pro-wrestling all this time. It’s an existentialist’s dream really – actors prentending to be people who pretend to be glorified cartoon characters in the squared circle. It’s also, luckily enough, a great movie.

Starring Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, The Wrestler is filmed in a quasi-documentary style for the most part, all shaking cameras and uncomfortable close-ups. Rourke, with his long, bleached hair, resembles nothing so much as Dog The Bounty Hunter if, instead of making a reality show about finding Jesus, bounty hunting, and being a horrible racist, Dog had found a syringe full of anabolic steroids and a pair of fluorescent tights, donned the equally-ridiculous animalistic nickname of “The Ram”, and turned to the pantomime world of being a washed-up pro-wrestler. Meanwhile, Marisa Tomei plays – in the grand tradition of sports movies with inspirational stories – the stripper with a heart of gold.

For the hardcore wrestling fans, its full of glorious references, winking stereotypes and cameos, all designed to make us, in the industry lingo, “mark out”. Whether that’s from seeing the Rock n’ Roll Express namechecked on a magazine cover in the opening credits sequence, or seeing Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake named as an advisor, or Afa Anoa’i being Rourke’s wrestling coach, it’s all there for the dedicated to pick up on, and smile a smug smile, content in the knowledge that we’re getting something out of this movie that non-fans never could.

Which isn’t to say that The Wrestler requires an in-depth knowledge of the business. It is, at heart, a character piece: Randy is an aging wrestler with a failing heart who can’t find a way out of the business. His only friend outside the industry is Marisa Tomei’s stripper, and his daughter is all but completely estranged. It works as a drama, although it’ll sound stupid and Hallmark-ish when you try to recount it to people later – “So he reunites with his daughter, but then he misses dinner with her and she wants him to DIE.”

It’s all about Rourke’s sterling turn, in the end: he clearly worked his backside off for the role, and it pays off hugely. He’s naturally charming (especially behind the deli counter), he handles the lovey-dovey-drama stuff well, and most importantly, he looks believable in the ring. The hardcore match between the Ram and Necro Butcher is genuinely difficult to watch at times, but it’s brilliantly offset by the absurd humour that develops from the melee. Evan Rachel Wood, on the other hand, is something of a weak link as Randy’s daughter. She is far less convincing, which isn’t entirely her fault – her character can seem like something of a genre trope at times.

Making the movie even more enjoyable is the thoroughly excellent soundtrack, featuring everything from Guns n’ Roses’ Sweet Child of Mine to Accept’s Balls to the Wall, and best of all, Cinderella’s Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone. Taking its cue from the era of wrestling history it’s based on, the movie plunders 80’s hair rock with gleeful abandon, giving a big part of an important scene over to Rourke and Tomei discussing how the 80’s were the best, until “Cobain came along and ruined everything. What’s wrong with just wanting to go out and have fun?” Somewhat disappointingly, The Wrestler is never “fun”. It’s a serious movie, telling a dramatic, tragic story that’s scarily accurate to how the wrestling business used to operate. But it is a wonderful movie, and the ending will stick with you long after you leave the theatre.

Much like the image of Mickey Rourke injecting anabolic steroids into his flabby, saggy, flappy, leathery backside. You’ve been warned.


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