Sport on Film: Rourke's drift into fight game brings knockout performance

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The Independent Culture

Wrestling isn't a sport so much as America's idea of a costume drama. It's carefully scripted, it relies on props and ripped leotards, if not bodices, and you get paid to put on an act. So it's about time it got the full Hollywood treatment, and it does in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler. Last week the film failed to secure an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture but its battered and bruised star, Mickey Rourke, stands a good chance of limping away with the Oscar for Best Actor.

It tells the story of former wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson, who has fallen on hard times but still grapples. He is offered a golden chance to return to fight his nemesis of 20 years ago, The Ayatollah, but suffers a heart attack and is told by doctors that he must give up. It's a very good film without being a great one, but Rourke packs a mighty punch.

Its similarity to Rourke's own story is hard to ignore. Who said the Americans don't do irony? Under Obama, they can. The hell-raising star of Eighties hits such as 'Angel Heart' and 'Nine Weeks' became disillusioned with acting and, at the age of 39, turned to professional boxing.

He had first stepped into the ring as a 12-year-old in Miami, at the 5th Street Gym where Muhammad Ali began his career. Rourke is reputed to have won 12 consecutive fights with first-round knockouts. After a couple of concussions he was told to take a year off, but drifted into acting instead.

His boxing comeback came 20 years later. He was trained by Freddie Roach, who is now in Amir Khan's corner, and after two years he had earned a million dollars. Yet he threw in the towel in 1994 after eight fights, unbeaten but having sustained facial injuries which required several operations.

So it's not for nothing that Randy admits: "I'm an old, broken-down piece of meat." Robert De Niro was lauded for packing on the pounds to play boxer Jake La Motta in 'Raging Bull' – and he won the Oscar. But he was 37, while Rourke had to do the same at 56.

Aronofsky is now directing 'The Fighter', about the boxer "Irish" Micky Ward and his crack-addict half-brother and trainer Dickie Ecklund. It has all the makings of another box-office success, with Mark Wahlberg and Brad Pitt signed up to play the siblings.

Randy does take on The Ayatollah, and also someone dressed up as a terrorist, torturing him with a nail gun and barbed wire. In the week that George Bush took his final count, the film is curiously symbolic of the passing of an age of macho posturing.

Rourke put up a heartfelt defence of the outgoing president, while Randy tells his fans, "They say, 'He's washed up, he's finished, he's a loser, he's all through.' The only one that's going to tell me when I'm through doing my thing is you people here."

No more wrestling with our consciences, the superheroes are wearing the tights again.