have you ever seen a one-trick pony?

I finally caught up with Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, a film that’s been getting no shortage of critical love this year. Apart from Slumdog Millionaire, which I liked pretty well, this is the only “awardy” movie I had any real interest in seeing this year. (Not even my deep and somewhat unfounded affection for David Fincher could drag me to dreary-looking, CGI-drenched Benjamin Button.)

And The Wrestler is good. It’s not subtle, or surprising — this is a wrestling picture, after all. Robert Siegel’s script puts its Jesus metaphors right upfront with a direct reference to sadomasochistic fetish picture The Passion of the Christ, and Aronofsky cheerfully obliges that and gives Siegel an assist by literally tattooing the face of Christ on his character’s back. And if an actor is ready to go over the top, it doesn’t seem like Aronofsky really wants to get in anyone’s way.

But as bathos goes, this is really well-executed. Aronofsky and DP Maryse Alberti’s roving hand-held camera and dirty, grainy images keep the mood squarely in the “arthouse sad” square, the heavy-metal soundtrack is spot-on, Evan Rachel Wood doesn’t ruin things too badly, and Mickey Rourke’s performance is full of lumbering sweetness and short on self-pity. Not to mention the sheer physicality of his performance — Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s wrestling repertoire ranges from flesh-ripping attacks with glass and barbed wire to surprisingly elegant flips and sweeps, and Rourke handles it all with grace and the kind of regular-guy charisma that has always made the best wrestlers so endearing. (Hey, the Rock is apparently starring in the new Witch Mountain movie for Disney, so….)

At its best, which is most of the time, The Wrestler is an update of The Champ, which, the Coen brothers notwithstanding, is not such a bad thing. But….

There was another movie along similar lines in 2008. One I liked even better.

Mabrouk El-Mechri’s JCVD is a completely different animal from The Wrestler. Sleek, cool, measured, and most of all European, JCVD is a kind of antithesis to the arguments of that film. Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a man of unfailing heart and courage who’s simply been beaten down by the economics of a business totally unforgiving of aging flesh (the parallels to stripping as a career for women are made quite explicit). But Jean-Claude Van Damme (the character) is something else — a man whose body, though not as limber and resilient as it once was, is still far from failing him, but whose heart has been utterly hollowed out by the rigors of the wrong kind of fame. Jean-Claude’s career may be on the skids, but (a) he still rides around in taxis and limos wrapped in camel hair coats, and (b) he, unlike Randy, is well aware of how completely ridiculous is the image of masculinity on which he’s based his career. If Aronofsky takes care not to let the humor implicit in pro wrestling crowd in on his character’s dignity, El-Mechri is only too happy to show us exactly how preposterous Van Damme’s films have been. The real surprise, of course, is that Van Damme volunteers to go along for the ride.

JCVD, the story of washed-up martial arts star Jean-Claude Van Damme caught up in a post office robbery, is largely a comedy — or at least, the audience that I saw it with laughed more than we did anything else. But, as with First Blood, there’s a monologue in this movie that elevates it way beyond its genre trappings. And El-Mechri cleverly acknowledges that this monologue, which happens around the midpoint of the film, is both in and out of character by bodily removing Van Damme from the physical environment of the movie for about four minutes. It’s a simple, bold gesture and a devastating performance from Van Damme, a self-scourging exploration of his public persona as well as a brittle rejoinder to a public that can’t leave celebrities the hell alone. The theater I was in fell absolutely silent.

And that’s just one moment in a movie packed with beautiful, deft moments. The opening action sequence is a hilarious and exhilarating one-take fight scene perhaps inspired by the famous one from Oldboy:

Or there’s the courtroom scene where a divorce attorney lists off all the grotesque ways that people have died in Van Damme movies (a sign of the actor’s moral turpitude and presumed unfitness to be a parent) — but this is played for comedy, not for pathos. Or the great moment where Van Damme squares off with the most brutal of three robbers and you really think he’s going to take him down… until you remember, and he remembers, that he’s just an actor, not an action hero. Or when he calls his agent and his agent pretends to be in traffic, going to so far as to play a tape of cars honking in the background. Or Van Damme’s near-breakdown when he’s unable to get a money transfer from the teller — followed by an incredible reversal when he begins to think he’s on a Candid Camera-style reality show. Or the ending, which is sad and ambiguous and perfect, covering much the same father-daughter ground that The Wrestler does, but in fewer and more graceful steps.

It’s an amazing movie, supremely polished in its presentation, yet undeniably raw and courageously candid in the star’s presentation of himself as an object of both ridicule and pity. I loved it.

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1 Response to have you ever seen a one-trick pony?

  1. Grambear says:

    Tried to get to Slumdog last night but it was sold out. In Syracuse no less.So we came home and watched The Warning on PFV. A pure guy flick.Lots of fantasy action for the skinny little guy now trained to kill. Plot twists try to make it more serious but don’t work.We do want to see The Wrestler, well Da does. And we still want to get to Slumdog.

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