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His finest hour

Mickey Rourke makes a triumphant return as a washed-up prizefighter

<strong>The Wrestler (15)</st

In his cool-cat memoir Chronicles: Volume One, Bob Dylan describes taking a break from recording Oh Mercy in 1988 to catch Mickey Rourke in Homeboy. "He could break your heart with a look," Dylan reflects. "The movie travelled to the moon every time he came on to the screen. Nobody could hold a candle to him. He was just there, didn't have to say hello or goodbye. Just seeing him act gave me the inspiration to cut the last two songs for this album." Dylan devotees must be praying he sees Rourke's new film, The Wrestler, where there is surely guts and glory enough to inspire a triple album or two.

As Randy "the Ram" Robinson, a burnt-out wrestling star scratching a living on the old pros' circuit, Rourke has found, at 52, the role that fits him like a glove - or, in this case, like a pair of ill-advised Lycra strides. At drab community centres, Randy trades choreographed moves with other steroid-bolstered brawlers who have scarcely a neck between them. Still, these guys sure know how to accessorise: hearing aids, crutches, catheters. A convention at which they are the main draws resembles a bad day at Outpatients.

Early in the film, Randy is rushed to hospital after coming off poorly against an opponent wielding a staple gun. The resulting carnage - a stepladder standing in a blood-soaked ring strewn with stationery supplies and broken glass - looks like the aftermath of a riot in Ryman. A doctor gives him a choice: quit wrestling or die. Reluctantly, he slows down - he takes a job on a supermarket delicatessen counter, cosies up to an ageing stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), and seeks out his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). But then a promoter reminds him of that classic 1980s bout, the Ram v the Ayatollah, and says: "Two words: Re. Match."

Rourke's greatest asset was always his contradictory quality: he spoke as demurely as a debutante even as he swore like a docker; and the more nastily he behaved, the more desolate he seemed. This is amplified in The Wrestler, where the mannerisms that felt self-parodic in 9½ Weeks and Angel Heart have been pared back by the film's director and co-writer, Darren Aronofsky (who has also jettisoned the visual clutter of his own earlier work, including Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain).

Randy is not so much a role as a tap from which pathos might flow at any moment, and if you saw the 1999 wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat, you will know this rather comes with the territory. But Rourke stays in check. He doesn't strain to project a damaged past now that his physiognomy tells that tale all too eloquently. And what a face! It's simultaneously spongy and blunt - half blancmange, half snowplough. His lilting, feminine voice is still audible, but it's buried deep inside a rasp that suggests a gravedigger's shovel scraping on tarmac.

The Wrestler is difficult viewing, and not only because it shows a man stapling dollar bills to his own head. Just as Randy will tolerate any indignity in exchange for his comeback, so the film feels at times like Rourke's personal celluloid hairshirt. (Until now, he was widely considered to have squandered his shot at greatness.) I know it's Randy, not Rourke, who is being humiliated, but let's not pretend that some autobiographical hurt isn't leaking into the picture when Stephanie screams: "You are a living, breathing fuck-up!" What are the chances Rourke has heard that one before?

Luckily, Aronofsky's compassion is unwavering; he doesn't aestheticise his subject's suffering, the way Martin Scorsese did in Raging Bull. Even the notion of the fighter as Christ-figure, which was catnip to Scorsese, becomes a running joke: the hand-held camera trails Randy constantly, like a centurion following Christ to the cross, while Cassidy's summary of The Passion of the Christ ("They throw everything at him - he just takes it for two hours!") could pass for a synopsis of The Wrestler. It's like a riff on how pop culture reveres martyrdom. (Listen out for a choice put-down of Kurt Cobain.) Randy's problem is that he won't relinquish his defunct dreams. He just can't see that his finest hour occurs at the deli, where he dishes out wisecracks and tubs of egg salad with all the razzle-dazzle of Tom Cruise mixing daiquiris in Cocktail.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...