The latest from director Darren Aronofsky ("Pi"), "The Wrestler" sees Mickey Rourke doing a fine job confirming his comeback, which started with "Sin City" and will likely continue with an upcoming role in the "Iron Man" sequel. "The Wrestler" stars Rourke as Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, a former wrestling sensation who finds himself washed up years later, wrecked by age and from going so many rounds in the ring over the years.
Finding himself down-and-out, Randy takes work wherever he can get it, first fighting in gritty, rough regional matches in local auditoriums against low-end local stars and then at a job working behind the counter at a local deli. In one heartbreaking scene, Randy works at an autograph signing with a few other fellow former stars, and the few people that show up are less enthusiastic than the stars lined up at the fold-out tables. If all that wasn't enough, Randy is told by the doctor that wrestling for all these years has put a strain on his heart.
Hit with the realization that his health isn't what it used to be, he begins to try to repair the relationship he has with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who he's barely seen since he left. Rourke is spot-on in scenes with Wood, especially in a scene where he takes her to the shore to apologize for what he has put her through over the years. The scenes the two have together throughout the film are genuine and often quite touching.
There's also the matter of a romantic interest in a sweet local exotic dancer named Cassidy (Marissa Tomei), who has to take care of a child of her own. While Tomei and Rourke aren't exactly a pairing I would have imagined working too well, the two have a sweet, warm chemistry with one another. Still, while Randy tries to make things work, the ring still calls, and when things aren't working, he returns to the one thing he knows well for a rematch against his biggest rival in the sport.
Although a great deal of "The Wrestler" works and works well, the film's best element Rourke, who offers a subtle, engaging performance as the former star. While the picture could have fallen too far into sorrow and defeat, Rourke gives the character a quiet dignity that allows us to root for him to return towards glory, or at least make a start on the road in that direction. The actor's career has certainly seen its share of highs and deep lows, too, and Rourke manages to channel his lowest lows into this raw, powerful performance.
The core plot may not be particularly new - the old underdog eventually tries to make another go - but it's the way that director Aronofsky and writer Robert Siegel handle the material that lifts the picture quite a bit above the familiar. While the story does an impressive job avoiding many of the usual cliches, Aronofsky (working with ace cinematographer Maryse Alberti) finds the right note of isolation, grit and wear in the locations, some of which - such as the local auditoriums - feel as if they've been left to the elements over the years.
The picture is a return by Aronofsky to a smaller, more straightforward style, and it's a magnificent choice, as the film has a gritty, sober (almost "documentary-like") feel that absolutely works in its favor. The director manages to turn some of the film's quietest, simplest moments into the most powerful and touching. Overall, this another superb effort from Aronofsky and Rourke's performance certainly deserved the Oscar nomination.
VIDEO: "The Wrestler" is presented by 20th Century Fox in 2.35:1 (1080p/AVC) and the results are quite good. The film's raw look is captured very well by the transfer, which shows fine detail and clarity in nearly all scenes. The picture's mildly grainy, gritty appearance at times is intentional and is handled well by this presentation. No instances of edge enhancement or artifacting were seen, and the print appeared free of specks, marks and other debris. Although there are some instances of richer, brighter colors, the film's color palette is otherwise understandably subdued. Colors looked accurate, with no smearing or other faults.
SOUND: The film is presented in DTS-HD 5.1. While the surrounds flare up for some crowd ambience during the wrestling scenes, the rear speakers are understandably quiet during most of the rest of the movie, which remains dialogue-driven. Audio quality was just fine, with crisp music and clear, well-recorded dialogue.
EXTRAS: The video extras are not offered in HD.
"Wrestler Round Table" is a 25-minute interview with a set of former wrestlers, who chat about their careers and share their thoughts on how the sport is portrayed in the film. It's an enjoyable discussion and sheds some light on the day-to-day realities of the sport.
"Within the Ring" is a longer 42-minute piece that offers an in-depth look at the production, starting with the filmmakers' idea on how to approach the subject after seeing some of the former legends of wrestling now working in local matches for little money and no benefits. From there, the documentary offers an excellent overview of the production, touching on issues such as scouting the locations to working on stunts for the wrestling scenes to working on the score and other subjects. While the lack of a commentary is still disappointing, this is certainly one of the better "making of" documentaries I've seen recently.
Finally, we get the Bruce Springsteen music video for "The Wrestler" and a digital copy of the film for use on computers and portable devices.
Final Thoughts: Lead by an outstanding performance from Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler" is certainly one of the best films of 2008. The Blu-Ray edition offers very good audio/video quality, as well as a few enjoyable extras. Recommended.
The Film A