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Friday, January 2, 2009

Bob "Count Dante" Calhoun Reviews "The Wrestler"

This review may contain spoilers. I’m not quite sure it does per se, but you can probably puzzle out the film’s flow of events by reading this. Proceed at your own risk.

ONE OF THE MOST POIGNANT SCENES in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler shows Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) making his way through the winding hallways of the “employees only” area of the super market where he works. It’s his first day of manning the deli counter where he will be seen by the public instead of moving boxes in the store’s loading dock. The scene is shot over Rourke’s shoulder, giving you a feeling of first person immediacy rarely captured in cinema. In the soundtrack you can hear the cheers of a crowd. They are faint at first but become louder with every turn down another concrete corridor. There is little to distinguish the backrooms of the super market from those of the arenas where Robinson used to perform. In his head he still hears those cheers although now, he is only going to slice ham and dish up egg salad.

He calls old ladies “spring chicken” and tosses tubs of potato salad at costumers as if they were Hail Mary passes. He works his audience just like he used to in the ring. He uses crowd psychology. He becomes the star of the show. For a moment he almost makes his post-squared circle transition to the quiet life – almost.

Anyone who has ever been in the ring, deserving of that honor or not, knows what “The Ram” is going through here. I have moments, sitting in my cubicle at my new job, where I wonder how I can get back on a bus and back in a concert hall packed with drunks to slug it out with Poontangler. I miss people throwing food at me. None of my new co-workers ever fling a vodka Collins in my eyes. You miss that kind of reaction from people. It gets in your blood.

Randy doesn’t have such appealing options as I do however. He won’t write a book or become a research analyst at a major university. While I always had to keep my dayjob, Randy made his living from the wrestling game. He was a spandex clad superstar in the 1980s but now he’s pissed away whatever cash he earned during his salad days on easy women, cocaine and steroids. Rourke’s portrayal of Robinson is a riff superstar turned crackhead Jake “The Snake” Roberts with Shawn Michaels’ aesthetic and a ghastly detour into Terry Funk country. Randy lives in a trailer. He’s late with the rent. He romances a stripper (Marisa Tomei) but she won’t break the club’s ban on dating costumers for him. His daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) hates his guts. He headlines small time cards in high school gyms for a couple of rolled up bills. With the hopes of making it back into the big time, he gets drawn into an extreme wrestling bout complete with staple guns, thumbtacks, barbed wire and broken glass. He vomits and has a heart attack. He tries to stay away from the ring but he just can’t manage that. By the time he’s driving his beat-up van and rockin’ to Accept’s “Balls to the Wall,” Randy’s balls really are to the wall.

During the film’s final bout, a reunion match with his 80s arch nemesis The Ayatollah (former WCW wrestler Ernest “The Cat” Miller in a surprisingly excellent albeit brief performance), Randy’s opponent remarks, “I forgot how much fun this is!” The Ayatollah now owns a used car lot in Phoenix. Pro wrestling retirement works for him. He uses the fast talking skills that he cultivated to gain audience ire decades earlier to move pre-owned vehicles. The ambitions that he once channeled into the ring are now used to expand his automotive empire. He's allowed himself to forget the rush of being in the ring. The problem for Randy is that he never forgot.

The Wrestler is flawed yet hits so many of the right notes. Rourke manages to be understated while playing someone who is so totally larger than life. I doubt that this will be the kind of comeback for him that John Travolta had with Pulp Fiction. Rourke just looks too strange for more mainstream or diverse roles. After several sessions with the plastic surgeon, his countenance is both puffy and tight. When he has the right role however, as in this film or Sin City, he can be mesmerizing.

Aronofsky and scriptwriter Robert B. Siegel (a former editor of The Onion no less) capture the smalltime wrestling scene with a shocking accuracy. The scenes of wrestlers working out their matches in cramped backrooms were no different from similar scenes at the Fillmore or Transmission during my days with ISW. Before Randy’s match with the Ayatollah, the two veteran grapplers forgo talking over some of the spots – the hallmark of true pros who can call a match to capitalize on the crowd heat as opposed to pre-planning it.

The film’s flaws can be found in its occasional predictability. When I was starting to work on Beer, Blood and Cornmeal, I had toyed with the idea of writing it as a loosely autobiographical work of fiction or roman à clef. The problem with that approach quickly became apparent to me: with fiction I had to generate the dramatic. Somebody had to die or become crippled in the ring. Melodrama and its resulting predictability were always nipping at my heels with fiction. I couldn’t escape it and ultimately, neither could the makers of The Wrestler. In their defense, there were very few places they could realistically take Randy “The Ram” Robinson. For me, giving a factual account of my days with the punk rock wrestling show was a liberating act. Surprisingly, nobody in ISW became crippled in that rickety ring of ours (at least not physically). Somebody should have broken their neck during one of our shows but nobody did. If I had written it that way as a work of fiction, the book would have been scoffed at for being unbelievable.

The Wrestler also features a lot of a topless Marisa Tomei. If you ever watched My Cousin Vinny and wondered what her tough Jersey girl character would look like in the buff, you get your chance to now. Sure, it’s 17 years later now, but it hardly matters. She still looks great and she even peels to the Scorps during one scene. There’s a fair amount of 80s German metal in the soundtrack to The Wrestler. You can't beat that with a figure 4 leglock.

Bob Calhoun AKA Count Dante was an untrained grappler and mad master of ceremonies for the punk rock/lucha promotion Incredibly Strange Wrestling.His book about those years, "Beer, Blood and Cornmeal" (ECW Press) is currently available through Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere.