The Wrestler (15)

Let's hear it for the fall guy

Mickey Rourke looks extraordinary in The Wrestler.

As Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a professional wrestler whose glory years are long behind him, he has skin the colour of chicken tikka and a leonine mane of Eighties rock-star hair peroxided to within an inch of its life. His ageing musculature is bruised and patched and pumped on steroids. His favoured raiment is a battered black jacket and checked shirt that might have been peeled from a vagrant's back.

But it's Rourke's physiognomy that most fascinates. This is a face so wrecked by plastic surgery that it seems incredible he should still be acting. So we look for the emotional shifts and nuances in the eyes, still recognisably his own, still capable of slyness, humour, desperate appeal and, in one late scene, brimming pathos.

That's the Rourke gaze we knew and loved from the days when he really was a contender. Impossible to forget his two landmark performances of the 1980s, first as the gentle lothario Boogie in Diner (1982) and then as the enigmatic Motorcycle Boy in Coppola's Rumble Fish (1983), when he gave, alongside Matt Dillon, one of the great American portraits of brotherly love. Rourke could hold the screen even when the movie stank to heaven; I have blanked most of Angel Heart and A Prayer for the Dying, but I still remember admiring that quizzical presence and the soft, crooning voice. The Wrestler has been positioned as Rourke's comeback movie, yet in truth he's never really gone away. He has been working steadily, albeit in obscurity, for years, just like Randy Robinson, the one-time star whose beat is now the school gymnasium and the mission hall.

Randy only knows how to do one thing well, and that's to pull on his tights and throw himself about in a wrestling ring. He may supplement his pitiful earnings by stacking boxes at the local mart, but once he steps out in front of the baying crowd he feels alive.

While Darren Aronofsky's film will win no prizes for originality, it does offer an insider's view of this heroically puerile activity. It isn't a sport, of course; it's more like a branch of performance art, and watching Randy shoot the breeze with his fellow wrestlers (is there really an act named The Funky Samoans?) and plan his moves for that night's bout, one is touched by the camaraderie, the determination, and the sheer bloody stupidity of it. "We're gonna milk it tonight – old school!" one of them yells, just before taking a stepladder onstage from which to take a swan-dive on to a prostrate opponent. It's a measure of how absurd these props can get that Randy, on hearing that his next opponent will be wielding a staple-gun, merely shrugs: it's all in a night's work for him.

Robert D Siegel's screenplay reveals precisely how much maintenance is required for Randy ("the sacrificial Ram") to go out there and do it. It's not just the hours at the tanning salon and the hairdresser; he also requires a veritable pharmacopoiea – steroids, painkillers, uppers – to haul his failing body into shape. Not surprisingly, after a bout of unusually brutal punishment, Randy has a major heart episode, and wakes up the next day with a great livid scar down his chest from the emergency by-pass. "You almost died," says his doctor, delivering a wake-up call that even Randy, with his hearing-aid, can't fail to heed.

Only problem is, life might have passed him by while he's been carving out a career in the ring. Popular as he is among the tights-and-tatts fraternity, Randy doesn't have many friends, and his courting of a local stripper, Pam (Marisa Tomei), hasn't made it past first base. One of their best scenes together takes place in a vintage clothes shop, where she has taken Randy to buy a present for the estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) with whom he's trying to reconnect. Should he go for the trendy peacoat (her choice) or the shiny lime-green top that he's taken a liking to?

Randy hasn't a clue, about that or anything else. He's a man out of time – he still uses a pay phone – and he twigs it himself, late on, when he attends a promo event for wrestling fans. He signs a few bits of memorabilia, then looks around at the unattended desks of the other pros, twiddling their thumbs in the vast empty hall. It's like the Spinal Tap scene when nobody turns up for the record-store signing, only this time it's just terribly, terminally sad.

That elegiac note sounds right through the movie, which some will object to as old hat. We have had wrestling pictures since the days of Wallace Beery, and comeback movies are a dozen a dime in Hollywood. And yes, we've also seen the one-time champ who's now a burn-out, and the stripper who's a sensitive soul beneath the brittle front. It doesn't matter – because this is Mickey Rourke playing the burn-out, and Marisa Tomei playing the stripper. The characters may be stereotypes to us, but they're played here with a love and tenderness and resignation that could break your heart.

When Randy admits to his daughter that he's "an old, broken-down piece of meat", he's talking about his life as a wrestler, yet it could be Rourke talking about the fate of an actor whose talent was too easily squandered. There's anger, too, in a scene at the deli counter where Randy works, his wild tresses concealed, like Samson in a hairnet; he can deal with the customer from hell, but he cracks when faced with the customer who, finally, recognises him from his old life. It's age, Randy knows, that has brought him to this, and it's the only end of age he's headed for. In the meantime, put Mickey Rourke's name on the Oscar: he's earned it.