Not since the original "Rocky" have I seen a movie that doubles so well as an adrenaline rush sports story and flat out impressive piece of film as "The Wrestler." While it shares plenty thematically and in other places with "Rocky" and other works in the genre, there is no question "The Wrestler" stands on forcefully on its own as an amazing piece of work. The first twenty minutes or so are an intense and captivating look at the "so brutal you won't believe they didn't make this up" worl of professional wrestling. I was actually a bit concerned that if the whole movie was going to follow that I would enjoy it as a wrestling fan but it might not have a broader appeal, but from there it shifts to a second act with nary a bodyslam in sight in favor of some of the most emotional and wrenching character drama you will see anywhere. Without question and as you have probably read elsewhere, Mickey Rourke IS this movie, not only giving the performance of his career, but one that I'd hold up against some of the greats. His Randy "The Ram" Robinson is one of the most charming and endearing yet tragic characters I have seen brought to life in ages. Rourke inhabits the role so completely, physically and emotionally, and draws you into his world, making you care about this lovable loser (and never has the term been more appropriate) to an unbelievable degree. You don't just root for "The Ram" to overcome his past failures, you wince and get a genuine swell of concern in your heart that he never will. Marisa Tomei turns in a true acclaim-worthy performance (forget "My Cousin Vinny") and creates chemistry with Rourke as well as a character that perfectly complements Randy (though I confess having a little trouble believing the clients at the strip joint she danced at thought she was old and unappealing given the borderline excessive but smoking hot dance scenes); unlike some other movies I've seen of late, the love story is not a weak spot here. Evan Rachel Wood is fine, but honestly, it could have been any young female actress sitting across from Rourke as he carries every scene on his own. The cast of legitimate wrestlers who fill out the cast bring a realism both to the wrestling scenes as well as the somewhat sad commentary on a business that inspires such fanatic devotion from its young while eating away at its last generation. Lest I forget, there's no question that Darren Aranofsky's handiwork was all over his latest work in a very positive way. At first, I wondered if the continued first-person over the shoulder camera shots following Rourke would get excessive, but they turn out to be the perfect choice. Even if I didn't know from reading reports, I think I'd know how painstakingly Aranofsky researched his subject material for this film, as it shows all over. I could go on about how strongly "The Wrestler" hit me and how amazing Mickey Rourke was and how I wanted another hour and how brilliant the deli scene was, but I'll stop myself. Did I likely enjoy this movie slightly more than most might given my interest in the subject matter (not to mention the awesome 80's hair metal sound track)? Probably, but I'll still defy a non-wrestling fan to find much fault with "The Wrestler," because it's simply that good.
(And, again, as a wrestling fan, who once again saw what these men put their bodies through, particularly in the twilight of their lives, I have to wonder if there isn't a better way, and hope that there is)