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Rourke, Tomei win the belt in ‘Wrestler’

Rourke’s work in the film transcends mere stunt-casting; his performance is a howl of pain that seems to come from a very real place.

To look at Mickey Rourke’s face is to see a road map of bad decisions. Who knew that the destruction of his beautiful mug — via boxing, plastic surgery and plain old hard living — would bring him to one of his greatest performances?

It’s hard not to look for traces of the off-screen Rourke, ’80s movie legend gone off the rails, in his portrayal of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, past-his-prime ’80s wrestling legend, in “The Wrestler,” and perhaps director Darren Aronofsky would rather we didn’t. But Rourke’s work in the film transcends mere stunt-casting; his performance is a howl of pain that seems to come from a very real place, and it’s a potent reminder — as was his compelling role in “Sin City” a few years ago — that even if Rourke has made a mess of his career, his talent remains intact.

Life is rough for “The Ram”: He competes in barely promoted bouts in school gyms to tiny but devoted audiences, paying the rent on his mobile home with a grocery store job. His body’s falling apart, but he continues the rituals of steroids, tanning beds and hair bleaching, because he still feels like he’s got an image to maintain.

Robert D. Siegel’s script maintains an even keel, neither glorifying nor degrading Randy too much. For every humiliation — insults from his grocery-store manager, an empty fan event where Randy sits at a table with a sad little stack of VHS cassettes — we get moments that let us see why Randy wants to stay in the game. His interactions with “rival” wrestlers are a real treat, from the advance choreography of how each bout will play out to the obvious adulation that up-and-coming grapplers have for this fallen legend.

And while Randy is haunted by his estrangement from his adult daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), he does at least find a glimmer of affection from Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), an aging stripper. While Cassidy is looking to hang up her G-string for good, however, Randy risks what’s left of his health on a rematch with his former adversary, The Ayatollah, on the anniversary of their Madison Square Garden fight that broke pay-per-view records.

While Randy’s inability to give up a way of life that is destroying him is the tragedy that drives “The Wrestler,” I found the Randy-Cassidy relationship to be the film’s most compelling element. Aronofsky brilliantly demonstrates that stripping is to femininity what wrestling is to masculinity — a cartoonish exaggeration of gender. These characters could easily have been stereotyped “lovable losers” in a less humane filmmaker’s hands, but here they are wonderfully sad and true.

If “The Wrestler” errs, it’s in overplaying its hand regarding Randy’s return to the ring. While his self-destructive bent is certainly true to the character, the climactic sequence goes over-the-top. Aronofsky sometimes just doesn’t know when to quit — take a look at the last 20 minutes of “Requiem for a Dream” if you don’t believe me — and the film’s final overkill damages the delicacy of the character study it has created.

The movie remains well worth seeing thanks to the poignant, powerhouse performances by Rourke and Tomei. The movie business hasn’t always been kind to either actor — Hollywood seemed to be punishing Tomei for years over her Oscar win for “My Cousin Vinny”  — but both of these great actors rise brilliantly to the occasion.