Rourke off the ropes

The sad ro­mance of wrestling has be­gun to se­duce cin­ema, writes Kerrie Mur­phy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

WITH all the buzz sur­round­ing Dar­ren Aronof­sky’s new film The Wrestler , it’s tempt­ing to give tuxedo mak­ers time off and just hand Mickey Rourke the Os­car for best ac­tor now. That Rourke has so quickly been anointed statue-wor­thy is a lit­tle sur­pris­ing — this is a come­back that would im­press Robert Downey Jr — but it’s not half as sur­pris­ing as the fact the movie is about pro­fes­sional wrestling.

The film, which chron­i­cles the de­cline of Randy ‘‘ The Ram’’ Robin­son, a head­line act of 1980s rock ’ n’ roll wrestling, now try­ing to re­claim past glo­ries in school halls while work­ing at a lo­cal su­per­mar­ket, may seem an un­likely can­di­date for ac­claim.

Re­spect and pro wrestling rarely go hand in hand. A com­bi­na­tion of spec­ta­cle and ath­leti­cism, awk­wardly dubbed ‘‘ sports en­ter­tain­ment’’, it is, to use the par­lance of a wrestling com­men­ta­tor, the red-headed step-child of en­ter­tain­ment.

Movies and wrestling have never had a par­tic­u­larly warm re­la­tion­ship. As Aronof­sky told Film Jour­nal Mag­a­zine : ‘‘ Most films that deal with wrestling make fun of it . . . I think peo­ple ba­si­cally roll it off say­ing, ‘ Oh it’s fake’ and they for­get all about it.’’

It’s true that watch­ing World Wrestling En­ter­tain­ment can stretch credulity. We know the match is pre­de­ter­mined. We can see that the ref is not so dis­tracted by the buxom valet that he can’t hear the heel ( wrestling slang for bad guy) land­ing a low blow on the face of the good guy.

But look be­yond the gar­ish tights and histri­on­ics and wrestling is not so easy to dis­miss.

Un­like movie ac­tors and other en­ter­tain­ers, wrestlers have no stunt dou­bles, no crash mats. When hard­core wrestling ar­rived in the ’ 90s, mar­tial arts weapons and bowl­ing balls be­came stan­dard is­sue. In one scene in The Wrestler , The Ram and his op­po­nent dis­cuss how a sta­ple gun can be used; a later scene shows a medic re­mov­ing the sta­ples from his torso and arms. This is not fan­ci­ful movie in­ven­tion.

Just ask Mick Fo­ley, the masked wrestler ‘‘ Mankind’’, who had a suc­cess­ful run in the WWE in the late ’ 90s and wrote sev­eral best­selling books about his ex­pe­ri­ences. One of his most fa­mous matches was The Hell in the Cell 1994, where Fo­ley was chokeslammed by ‘‘ The Un­der­taker’’ on top of a cage, fall­ing sev­eral me­tres into the ring and land­ing on top of a pile of thumb­tacks and a steel chair. ‘‘ I had one and a half teeth knocked out, 15 stitches be­low my lip, a dis­lo­cated jaw, a dis­lo­cated left shoul­der, a bruised kid­ney and a cou­ple of cracked ribs,’’ he told me in 1999. ‘‘ I imag­ine I had a con­cus­sion, al­though I didn’t get that checked.’’ This from a man who was al­ready down half an ear af­ter get­ting his head caught be­tween the ropes.

Wrestlers can seem quite blase about rou­tine head in­juries. ‘‘ There have been times where I was talk­ing com­plete Greek and I wouldn’t re­alise it,’’ says WWE chair­man Vince McMa­hon. ‘‘ All you can do is laugh. Post-con­cus­sion syn­drome they call it.’’

Even Rourke, who fa­mously quit act­ing in 1991 to be­come a boxer, was sur­prised at the far greater risk of in­jury from wrestling. ‘‘ I got hurt more in the three months do­ing the wrestling than in 16 years of box­ing,’’ he said at a New York press con­fer­ence. ‘‘ I think I had three MRIs in two months.’’

While Aronof­sky’s film lays bare the real pain ex­pe­ri­enced by th­ese sports­men, it also pro­vides a glimpse of the tricks and make-be­lieve that make up their car­ni­val world.

It shows the wrestlers roughly out­lin­ing their match be­fore­hand or, if they have par­tic­u­lar con­fi­dence in each other, call­ing it on the fly by sur­rep­ti­tiously whis­per­ing the moves to each other as they go. Then there’s the mat­ter of blad­ing. A wrestler will of­ten hide a small piece of ra­zor­blade be­hind the tape on his wrist­bands. When he’s face down on the ground af­ter a ‘‘ bru­tal’’ at­tack, he will dis­creetly cut his fore­head, an area that can ap­pear to pro­duce a lot of blood, es­pe­cially when it’s mixed with sweat, and not cause too much dam­age apart from scar­ring. ( That’s no stunt blade Rourke uses in the film.)

Then there’s the whole no­tion of play-act­ing, of be­ing a char­ac­ter. Chris­tian Bale can take off his Bat­man suit at the end of the day but the best wrestlers don’t. As wrestler-turned-ac­tor Dwayne ‘‘ The Rock’’ John­son once noted, a wrestling char­ac­ter is an ex­ten­sion of the wrestler’s per­son­al­ity ‘‘ with the vol­ume turned all the way up’’. There can be a painful dis­junc­tion be­tween the su­per­man of the ring and the hu­man be­ing, though: one at­tracts le­gions of ad­mir­ing fans; the other can hardly pay the rent on his trailer.

Which is what makes The Wrestler so heart­break­ing. Fame, as we know, is a fickle mis­tress, but she seems par­tic­u­larly harsh on pro wrestlers. Not only is there the mat­ter of be­ing a has-been, there’s the bro­ken body: a com­bi­na­tion of all that phys­i­cal ex­er­tion and in­jury, and the steroids and painkillers that flood the locker rooms ( not to men­tion the recre­ational drugs that go hand in hand with the party life­style of trav­el­ling on the road).

Barry W. Blaustein’s 1999 doc­u­men­tary Be­yond the Mat , with wrestling leg­end Jake ‘‘ The Snake’’ Roberts smok­ing crack in his mo­tel room and try­ing to make up with his es­tranged daugh­ter, shows that The Ram’s prob­lems are not far from the truth.

And wrestlers such as The Ram are the lucky ones. They’re not like Dar­ren Droz­dov, who be­came a para­plegic at the age of 30 af­ter a piledriver went wrong in a match. Or one of the 24 well-known wrestlers un­der 50 who have died since 2000, in­clud­ing WWE head­liner Chris Benoit, who trag­i­cally killed his wife, son and him­self last year.

Even in the bizarre world of sports en­ter­tain­ment, some un­palat­able truths about the hu­man con­di­tion emerge.

The Wrestler opens on Jan­uary 15.

Best-sell­ing au­thor: Mick Fo­ley in 1999

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