Movie News & Reviews

Rourke claws back to the top

As the immortal LL Cool J once intoned, “Don’t call it a comeback/I’ve been here for years.” But in Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last hit. Struggle for too long, and you’ll become persona non grata in that insular community.

The great thing, however, is that there’s always a comeback right around the corner. With the right roles, people who have been lost to the sands of time can become relevant again.

Just ask Robert Downey Jr. Less than five years ago, he was considered a lost cause and now he’s the leading man of two major studio franchises. So it can happen.

A POIGNANT PERFORMANCE

Twenty years ago, Mickey Rourke was a rare breed – a matinee idol with legitimate acting chops. Somewhere along the line, though, Rourke veered off the path – an obsessive romance, some questionable roles, a failed boxing career and copious drug use helped stall a promising career.

And so it seems like kismet that Rourke would land the starring role in THE WRESTLER (R, hhh1/2 stars), the story of a washed-up grappler seeking one last shot at redemption. It was a risky gamble by visionary director Darren Aronofsky (the financial backers wanted Nicolas Cage to star), but one that paid off in spades.

Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke) is a broken-down wrestler who doesn’t know how to do anything but fight inside the squared circle. But as years of working in high school gyms and dreary community centers begin to take their toll, Randy begins to reassess his life.

He does that by reaching out to two women in his life: his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), who still resents his absence from her life, and a kindly stripper (Marisa Tomei) whom he has visited over the years.

These relationships are not easy, nor is The Ram’s attempt at “real” work in a local deli. The pain is clearly etched on The Ram’s face as he finds that non-scripted life is much tougher than any opponent he’s faced.

For all the stark reality Aronofsky brings to the wrestling world, he’s unfortunately saddled with a script that has its fair share of clichés and familiar plot points.

It’s Rourke’s performance that overcomes the film’s weaknesses. Arguably, it should have won the Oscar, and is even more poignant when you think about the parallels between the character and the man portraying him.

And now Rourke is back on top. Let’s hope he doesn’t squander this opportunity.

HE CAN REALLY ACT

I’m not going to lie – The Video Guy is a big fan of Jean-Claude Van Damme, the Muscles from Brussels. Yeah, his movies are somewhat cheesy, but there’s no denying the man has charisma.

And with JCVD (R, hhh1/2 stars), he proves that he can act as well. Seriously, I don’t understand how this wasn’t nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar. And lest you think I’m biased, the critical consensus was near unanimous in praise of Van Damme’s brutally honest performance.

A sort of meta look at the life of Van Damme, the movie mixes in fictional elements with the all-too-true tales of Van Damme’s drug use, financial woes and marital difficulties. It takes a heckuva man to break himself down on the big screen, putting his warts out there for everyone to see.

The film begins with a bravura opening tracking shot, showing Van Damme kicking, punching and exploding his way through his latest low-budget action film. It’s an amazing sequence, one you don’t expect to see from a novice director.

Then the film jumps to Van Damme’s native Belgium, where he goes after losing a custody battle and a job to Steven Seagal. While there, he stumbles into a robbery at a local post office, and through a series of misunderstandings, becomes the prime suspect.

The robbery scenes are the film’s weakest, as Van Damme’s self-reflection takes a backseat to some bumbling crooks that we couldn’t care less about.

But within the robbery lies an unbelievable scene of Van Damme rising into the heavens to deliver an unfiltered, single-take monologue of such power and honesty, it’s hard to believe that this is the same guy who was in “Double Team” (co-starring Mickey Rourke!).

I hope that someone gives Van Damme a shot – I’ve always argued that he could be a great bad guy in a Bond movie or something – but I’m happy he did get one more moment in the sun.

RAP’S GLORY DAYS

The Notorious B.I.G. got the short shrift in the 1990s dead rapper battle – former friend/enemy Tupac Shakur always got the critical praise, not to mention the voluminous amount of posthumous music that was released.

But with NOTORIOUS (R, hhh stars), a pulsating look at the ’90s rap scene and a fairly detailed look at the rise and fall of a rap legend, it’s nice to see Biggie get back into the public eye.

I was prepared to hate this movie. It was all too fresh, and I thought I knew too much for the film to tell me anything. However, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed taking this trip back to some of the glory days of rap.

Director George Tillman Jr. follows the boilerplate biopic template, but is saved by the above-average work of his actors. Newcomer Jamal Woolard steps into the large shoes of B.I.G., known in the pre-rap days as Christopher Wallace, a young kid who decided, like many others, to get into the drug game to make easy money.

Much to the chagrin of his mother (Angela Bassett, slumming here but still good), Wallace drops out of school, fathers a child and then gets sent to jail. It’s there that he begins to take rapping seriously. When Biggie gets out, he’s fortunate enough to meet up with Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke), an aspiring producer/mogul who takes him under his wing.

From there, it’s a heady ride to the top that will end four years later with Wallace shot dead in Los Angeles. The film covers those years rather quickly, stopping at important points: meeting the eventual Lil’ Kim (a sultry Naturi Naughton), wooing future wife Faith Evans, and meeting friend and eventual rival Tupac (Anthony Mackie).

With Combs and Biggie’s mom, Voletta Wallace, as producers, there’s a positive sheen on the proceedings that glosses over some of the rapper’s flaws, but it’s an enjoyable ride.

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