A couple of years ago, I met with a respected and successful producer who believed that one day, the motion picture industry would finally make a great pro-wrestling movie … and that I was the guy to write it. I had written several books— fiction, nonfiction, and children's —over the course of my 20-plus years as a pro wrestler, which apparently made me a credible candidate for this type of project. But I didn't have high hopes for it. The wrestling business has been the source of more than one critically acclaimed documentary—I was one of the subjects of Barry Blaustein's Beyond the Mat—but I worried that my vocation was not respected enough to merit a thoughtful fictional screen representation. The chances of seeing a great pro-wrestling movie seemed right up there with the likelihood of a Mickey Rourke career renaissance.
You can see why I was pessimistic about Darren Aronofsky's wrestling project. I received an inquiry early on about serving as a consultant but cited the need to "spend time with my family" as a reason to refrain. If I felt like having my name attached to a failure, I figured, I'd write another novel. Casting Rourke in the lead seemed like a mistake. Sure, he had been in some good films a few election cycles ago, and I'll admit to stealing his popcorn-box trick from Diner back in '82. But he seemed unlikely to deliver the portrait of a wrestler I wanted.
And so I attended a recent New York screening with a dab of cynicism. Sure, I'd heard the film had been a hit at the Venice Film Festival, that there were shades of Beyond the Mat, that Mickey Rourke gave a great performance. I even heard that I was one of his influences in preparing for the role. But what did Hollywood know about my business, anyway? Who had they ever beaten? (As we say in the biz.)
I was hooked within a minute. Within five, I had completely forgotten I was looking at Mickey Rourke. That guy on the screen simply was Randy "the Ram" Robinson, an '80s mat icon on a two-decade-long losing streak in the game of life, searching for a way, any way, to fan the dying embers of his career. Rourke somehow makes the pathetic seem heroic and imbues in this sad, broken man a sense of quiet dignity and deep-down decency that makes the prospect of not rooting for him—in both his life and the ring—impossible.
I found great authenticity in so many aspects of Randy's battered psyche. His constant need for acceptance—from his estranged daughter; from his possible love interest, a stripper played by Marisa Tomei (who is wonderful, if a bit shocking for any guy who ever had a crush on her in My Cousin Vinny); from a random collection of customers at the deli counter where he works; from his dwindling number of nostalgic wrestling fans—is a theme that many a wrestler will grudgingly admit to connecting with. The scene depicting a poorly attended "Legends Convention" where Randy, a man so proud of his past, is forced not only to accept his present but to take a glimpse at the future, will strike an uncomfortable yet legitimate chord with every wrestling star whose personal appearances have ever been met with a symphony of silence.
I also loved the wrestling scenes. Rourke deserves great credit not only for whipping himself into incredible shape—packing 30 pounds of muscle on for the role—but for doing his wrestling homework. Learning the trade at age 52 could not have been easy, but Rourke's in-ring work is good enough to pass this wrestler's sniff test. No one will ever confuse Randy's clothesline with Stan Hansen's, and the scenes surely benefited from careful editing, but much of what Randy did—his flying "Ram Jam"; a Japanese enzugiri kick—actually looks pretty good. Importantly, it doesn't look any better than it should. His first in-ring scene, with a starry-eyed rookie thrilled just to be in the same arena with a former mat legend, looks realistically rudimentary. I could have done without the self-induced bloodletting, especially because it seemed so slow and deliberate, like a magician performing a card trick in slow motion. While such acts are a small but accepted part of the business, you wouldn't often see them at a sparsely attended event like this.