ACCEPTABLE IN THE EIGHTIES … OR NOT
Starring : Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei
Director : Darren Aronofsky
Starring : Mel Raido, Colin Salmon
Director : Neil Thompson
WHAT a week! January is barely half over, and already we have prime contenders for the very best and the very worst films to be released in the UK during the whole of 2009. In the blue – as in depressingly gloomy – corner, we find the embarrassingly wretched British gangland “drama” Clubbed, a thuddingly inept farrago which boasts barely any redeeming features. In the red corner – and at the diametrically opposing end of the quality-scale – we have The Wrestler, a genuine five-star masterpiece that instantly takes lofty rank among the decade’s cinematic achievements.
Clubbed is an adaptation of Watch My Back, Geoff Thompson’s bestselling 2000 memoir relating his exploits as a nightclub bouncer in his native Coventry. The book is well-regarded (“I can say from the perspective of a doorman that everything Geoff says does ring true,” nods the literary critic of Fighters Review) but something has clearly gone very badly awry in the transition from page to screen. The script, credited to Thompson himself, fictionalises his tale into the story of Danny (Raido), an insecure, weedy factory-worker in an unnamed English city who semi-inadvertently finds himself drawn into a twilight world of nightclubs – and belated develops a backbone in the process.
Unfortunately for all concerned, Danny’s transition from man to mouse has an ersatz, phoney feel at every single step: at no point, to go back to Fighters Review, does anything remotely “ring true,” including the distractingly hazy geographical and period detail (the film is seemingly supposed to be set in the Midlands during the 1980s, but it’s very hard to tell). Raido makes for a notably colourless, unengaging protagonist, and his toneless, near-incessant voice-over kills the movie’s momentum stone dead again and again and again.
Unimaginatively shot, scored and edited by director Neil Thompson (no kin), Clubbed features truly gratuitous violence and also lays on sentiment with a very large trowel. It somehow succeeds in making Rocknrolla look like GoodFellas, and one can only wonder what a genuinely talented and charismatic actor like Colin Salmon – who plays Danny’s suave mentor Louis, and has in the last couple of years been touted for both James Bond and Doctor Who – is doing in this meretricious, fifth-rate trash.
If Salmon should consider changing his agent sooner rather than later, one actor whose career is experiencing an unlikely and welcome resurgence is Mickey Rourke, who in The Wrestler has found a career-crowning showcase – one that which should, barring accidents, land him a Best Actor Oscar next month. It provides glorious vindication of a prediction/hunch ventured by David Thomson in his 2002 Biographical Dictionary of Film, and which sounded somewhat fanciful at the time: “He could come again. The guy… could still be waiting for his right moment, the big role, the unequivocal revelation that he has always been in charge.”
That “big role” turns out to be Randy “The Ram” Robinson – a kind of Hulk Hogan WWF-style celebrity 20 years ago, now reduced to eking out a living on the small-beer circuit in his native New Jersey. Supplementing his meagre income by working shifts at a local Wal-Mart-type store, including spells on the delicatessen counter, the fiftyish Robinson (real name ‘Robin Ramzinsky’) is paying the price for a life of wrestling, steroids, drugs, and partying. With his body starting to give out and the end of his career in sight, he belatedly tries to get himself back on track. He resumes contact with his long-estranged teenage daughter (Evan Rachel Wood); awkwardly romances a night-club hostess (Tomei); attempts to provide himself with one last decent-sized pay-day by agreeing a rematch with his greatest 80s-heyday foe, an African-American whose nom de sport is ‘The Ayatollah’ (Ernest Miller.)
The Wrestler is a sports film, and isn’t afraid to embrace certain melodramatic cliches of the genre. It’s also another example of the gutter-poetic/elegiac “noble loser” movie, in which American cinema has often specialised. But it’s also much, much more. Aronofsky, for once forsaking the smart-aleck tone and visual trickery of Pi and Requiem For a Dream, strips back his technique to the barest of bare-bones: hardly any score, no tripod, no gimmicks or affectations.
He gives his performers time and scope to fully explore their roles, and the rewards are immense: The Wrestler, deserved winner of the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, is a rare example of a film that is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious, as quietly profound and thought-provoking (there are all manner of political subtexts here if you want to explore them) as it is entertaining and accessible. David Thomson apart, who’d have thought that Rourke would have this in him – and who could have dreamed that the film itself would match, or even exceed, the superlative level his work attains?
THE WRESTLER : [10/10] : US 2008 : Darren ARONOFSKY : 109m (BBFC)
(1) 23rd October 2008, Gartenbaukino cinema, Vienna (Viennale film festival)
- public show (complimentary ticket) – original review
(2) 20th November 2008, One Aldwych screening room, London - press show
(3) 7th January 2009, The Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle – press show