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Photograph by Niko Tavernise
FADED GLORY: Mickey Rourke's Randy 'The Ram' Johnson tries to relive his glory days in 'The Wrestler.'

Jersey Bull

Mickey Rourke shows off his bruises and broken bones in 'The Wrestler'

By Richard von Busack

THE JAZZ MUSICIAN Joe Venuti once pushed a piano out of a high window just to see what chord it would make when it hit the ground. In a similar act of destruction, Mickey Rourke deliberately smashed his own instrument by becoming a boxer. Rourke had success in his playing around the foam rubber in Sin City and the prosthetics in Johnny Handsome, and he certainly plays what he's got left, around the ruined bones and gouges. Is the movie as great as you've heard? Actually, it's more like the greatest Rocky movie ever, made by someone with much better taste than Stallone. Director Darren Aronofsky never saw a bell he didn't want to ring like a cable car conductor, but this is by far his most humane and seasoned work. "I'm just an old broken-down piece of meat," says tumbler Randy "The Ram" Robinson, whose one great day of glory came 20 years ago. It was in Madison Square Garden, "one of the most historic matches in history," his triumph against the bad-guy wrestler the Ayatollah. (The Iranian government has been protesting this film. How soon they forget the Iron Sheik vs. Hulk Hogan bouts of the old days.) Now held together with duct tape, Randy lives in a Jersey trailer park. He pays for the company of a friendly stripper calling herself Cassidy (Marisa Tomei). After a ham-and-egg bout at a club, he's approached by a fanboy/promoter who reminds Randy of the 20th anniversary of the biggest day of his life. "Two words: Re. Match." The rest of the film has Randy readying himself for his new appointment with the Ayatollah in a Delaware arena. Meanwhile he tries to patch things up with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), while trespassing on the boundaries Cassidy uses to keep herself distanced from the clientele.

A film all about showbiz, The Wrestler knows the tricks—the drugs, the steroids, the slip of razor hidden in an athlete's tape to make a bloody show for the crowd. The rot of Jersey brings its own sadness. Tomei brings it, too; the shock of her physical exposure is noteworthy, but the real acting is all in her face. She has a close-up in jaundice yellow spotlight, transfixed by the realization that she's not in charge anymore: rather than being a goddessy dream lover, she's a mostly nude woman squatting in a room full of mooks. Less convincing is the humiliation of Randy's work at a megalomart deli. Did scriptwriter Robert D. Seigel get the idea from Weird Al Yankovich's parody of the Rocky anthem, "The Eye of the Tiger": "The Rye or the Kaiser"? Similarly rigged is the failing of Randy's health, right on the verge of a chance to prove himself.

Sometimes the demands of a neorealist film and a studio film intersect. The Wrestler's celebration of Guns N' Roses (as opposed to that "pussy Nirvana") is a shoutout for the overplayed and larger than life, as opposed to the intimate and half-said, as well as the more honest, the more personal. The Wrestler has the zeitgeist on its side. Much of the country feels like a battered pug whose '80s glory days may be long gone. Even if you have your doubts about the phoniness, it's easy to ignore the greasepaint and succumb to the roar of the crowd.

Movie Times THE WRESTLER (R; 109 min.), directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Robert D. Siegel, photographed by Maryse Alberti and starring Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei, opens Jan. 9.

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