Welcome to the JOE-DOWN, a back-and-forth movie review blog by two snarky newspapermen named Joe from Minnesota, Joe Froemming and Joe Brown. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked “The Wrestler.”
The Movie: “The Wrestler”
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Plot Summary: (From IMDB) A faded professional wrestler must retire, but finds his quest for a new life outside the ring a dispiriting struggle.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 98 percent
Brown: With Wrestlemania a week away, it was time the JOE-DOWN donned a pair of tights and entered the squared circle.
So this time, we went with a good wrestling movie. Like, one of the most revered movies of the 2000s. Much like how last week’s movie, “Die Hard” is one of the best movies ever.
I will admit, the first time I saw “The Wrestler,” I didn’t like it. Some of the directing aspects confused me and it is a real dour story. Now, I think I’ve seen it four times and the movie really does get better after each viewing. Maybe that’s what happens when you start to age and get a picture of what Randy “The Ram” Robinson is doing with his life.
While the movie is still very much a downer, it’s still fun to see the ‘80s wrestling legend ascend the top rope for the RAM JAM! The RAM JAM is like the band SLAYER where you have to use capital letters to really get the effect across.
So before we start partying like firemen, what’s your initial take, Froemming?
Froemming: My initial intake? Two words: RAM JAM!
I saw this in college, I think around the same time as you, and I loved it. I like depressing stories and Darren Aronofsky has yet to fail in providing that in his films. This movie sets up two people who are in the same boat in a sense: Randy our flawed but good-hearted hero and Pam, the stripper who Randy befriends/stalks in life. Both exploit their bodies for a living and both are kinda past their prime in their respective fields. Both are struggling in life, but where Pam has a plan on moving on, Randy tries but is eaten alive like the potato salad he munches on while working the deli counter.
There is a lot to unpack, so let me crank up “Metal Health” by Quiet Riot as you kick this off, Brown.
Brown: I think from this point forward, we need to refer to each other as brother, like any self-respecting wrestler.
Froemming: Like when Forum sports reporter Chris Murphy calls me “brother,” I will not respond to that.
Also, racist Hulk Hogan saying “brother” really bothers me these days.
Brown: Opening the movie to a collage of old fight cards (which I’m always a sucker for), we eventually see Randy “The Ram” Robinson enter the fray getting ready to compete in an independent show in New Jersey. In this universe, “The Ram” is pretty much Hulk Hogan as the biggest wrestling star of the ‘80s who, like Hogan, made his living winning over stereotypes and brown people, like his chief rival “The Ayotollah.”
Seriously, the clues about Hogan were right in front of us.
Anywho, this is far from the glitz and glamour of wrestling in 20,000-seat arenas in his prime. “The Ram” is wrestling in a rec center in the twilight of his career. You know, the point where his skin looks like a worn leather couch and his bleach-blonde hair is a tragedy.
Froemming: Mickey Rourke’s plastic surgery disasters over the years also came in handy for looking like his face has been smashed to hamburger for more than three decades.
Brown: I think you’ll agree with me that whoever cast Mickey Rourke in this movie should have been given millions of dollars. He is PERFECT for this kind of role. Especially when you consider that Nicolas FRIGGIN’ Cage was originally cast for that role. To be fair, I kind of want to see that movie.
Froemming: Would have been Cameron Poe with blond hair. I don’t see anything wrong with that.
Brown: Also, you’d expect the ‘80s top wrestling star to be living comfortably. Nope. He’s living in a trailer park where he can’t pay his rent and he’s working at a grocery store on weekdays to, as many real-life wrestlers proclaim, support his wrestling habit.
While “The Ram” is an extreme example, this is kind of the life cycle of the old wrestler: Wrestle until your body says no, work conventions and hope your heart gets you past your 50s after years of drug and alcohol abuse. See: Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Ric Flair, Roddy Piper, Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, Rick Rude.
While Randy is portrayed like Hulk Hogan, I see him more like ECW star Sabu, who is still going at 54 years old and in dire need of a hip. You can see what I mean by watching this clip in a short doc on independent wrestler “Bad Boy” Joey Janela.
Froemming: Speaking of Roddy Piper, we can’t leave out his infamous satire of The Ram in “It’s Always Sunny.”
I was keeping a keen eye out for a bucket of chestnuts in Randy’s van.
So Randy wrestles in the amateur league or whatever it is called.
Froemming: Shut up.
And we see backstage that all these youngsters have a lot of admiration for this legend of the field. We see these folks going over their plans for what to do in the ring, because if wrestling was real fights, all these men would be dead. They beat the hell out of their bodies, and even though a lot of it is staged and practiced, I still have a lot of respect for the art of this profession.
Granted, you can tell the years I watched wrestling based on my favorite wrestlers: IRS and Rey Mysterio.
It is interesting seeing the camaraderie between these guys backstage as opposed to what you see in the ring. Though Tommy Rotten deserved that RAM JAM for the stupid anarchy symbol tattooed on his back.
Brown: Well, when you have two guys sacrificing their well-being in order to put on a show, you NEED that camaraderie. And to this movie’s credit, stuff like that is extremely accurate.
So to complete more of the ‘80s washout stereotypes, Randy loves going to the strip club. His favorite: Cassidy (Tomei), who is the oldest stripper at the club by a country mile. Still a very attractive lady, though.
Froemming: This was the weirdest MCU origin movie for Aunt May.
Brown: Look man, times were tough before Uncle Ben entered the fray. A woman’s gotta make a living.
Cassidy’s living involves grinding against “The Ram” as he recounts his heyday working Madison Square Garden. Let’s say that this wasn’t a business transaction, how long would a woman stick around “The Ram” before being bored and walking away with his 25-year-old stories? At times, it’s like listening to Grandpa Simpson talking about wearing an onion on his belt (which was the style at the time).
Froemming: And not the white ones, but the big yellow ones, because of the war.
Brown: Also, we see a glimpse of Randy’s butt because he’s taking steroids. And it won’t be the last time we see Mickey Rourke’s butt.
In trying to make a living in the ring, we see the before-and-after for “The Ram” when he competes in a death match against former real-life death match wrestler Necro Butcher, whom I remember in a podcast he allegedly is a member of Mensa.
Among the things they do to each other: Use a staple gun on flesh, throw each other into plates of glass wrapped in barbed wire and use a fan’s prosthetic leg as a weapon.
Before this, we get a level of comedy with a visit to the dollar store to buy weapons. Then, this brings a little of the heavy. But hey, people pay to watch this (REDACTED). Mostly in the Philadelphia area, which makes sense when you watch “Always Sunny.” They’re passionate fans, dude.
Froemming: Passionate fans hopped up on FIGHT MILK and RIOT PUNCH!
Now, an aside. After I saw this I went to an Independent wrestling show in St. Cloud and they had a hardcore match similar to this, and the headliner was The Honky Tonk Man, who was roaming around in the back of the building looking just as sad as Randy does in this.
This movie sort of knocked the wind out of the fantasy of wrestling for me at that moment.
This is a cool scene though. We see the after before we see the match: Backstage with doctors yanking staples out of Randy’s body and these two bloody as all hell. This really shows us that even though a lot of this is staged, oh (REDACTED) they put themselves through hell for the audience.
Randy’s outer appearance is beat up, but that is nothing compared to what the drugs and exertion he has put on his heart, which decides to up and try to give up while he is backstage.
Our hero has a heart attack. He also vomits, which was more gross and disheartening to me. I hate seeing people vomit, that’s why “Stand By Me” is such a tough movie for me to watch.
Brown: He pretty much lands in the vomit, too. Not great.
So Randy is taken to the hospital where we find out A. His last name is Ramzinski, which is a surname NO ONE has ever had. And B. He had a triple bypass and the doctor heavily advises him to end his wrestling career.
That’s tough because Randy doesn’t strike you as the kind of guy who has any tangible skills outside of hip tosses and RAM JAMS!
Froemming: I dunno, he looks like those guys moving boxes around on the docks in every episode of “Law & Order.” He could do that.
Randy is on the road to recovery, by calling promoters and saying he is done, by asking for a full-time job at the grocery store (I love that Todd Barry is his boss in this, and Randy catches him watching porn at work), and by laying his health information on a stripper he makes listen to his glory days stories, which I mean, I guess she earns her pay with that.
Brown: Well, in the case of his heart attack, he asks Cassidy to talk to him outside. See, Randy thinks there’s a connection there when there really isn’t. I get it, Randy. I’ve made my relationships with women bigger than they actually are. Granted, I don’t pay them for lap dances but I get the idea.
One of the things Cassidy suggests is that Randy reach out to his daughter. Problem is their relationship is just a tad bit strained. If you’re like the wrestlers of old like Ric Flair where you’re on the road 300-plus days a year and often with a new woman in bed for much of those days, doesn’t really make you much of a family man.
So, Randy does eventually come to his daughter Stephanie (Wood) and she… wants nothing to do with him.
This is a constant for “The Ram:” You feel bad because he’s getting (REDACTED) on, but with his (assumed) past behavior, he kind of has it coming.
Froemming: His life is his work, so yeah, he burned bridges with his daughter over the years. But she was pretty rude to her old man when he came by.
This leads to Randy and Cassidy/Pam to go shopping for a gift for his daughter. This is another moment that takes out of the swamps of sorrow that is The Ram’s life. He likes this gaudy green jacket thing because it has an “S” on it, you know, his daughter’s name is Stephanie. It makes sense to Randy, because aside from the heart condition, he probably has an undiagnosed case of CTE from all those folding chairs to the head for three decades.
Brown: Plus, his finishing move, the RAM JAM, is a flying headbutt. Know who else used a flying headbutt? Chris Benoit.
I just made this review even more sad.
Froemming: Pam suggests a peacoat. Then Randy suggests grabbing a beer. You can tell she is not comfortable with this, what he being a customer while also looking like Vince Neil after a severe boxing match.
Now comes the best part of the movie: Crapping all over Kurt Cobain. Pam and Randy are connecting over crappy ‘80s metal while saying the mopey nonsense of Nirvana ruined music in the 1990s. They are not wrong.
Then Randy swings for the fences and ups and kisses Pam like he is Harvey Weinstein or something.
Brown: The idea that Pam and Randy are (REDACTED) on Cobain and the 90s and missing the days when songs were about partying and having fun in one of the most depressing movies I’ve seen… that irony is not lost on me.
This scene also features the most awkward singalong moment I think I’ve seen in a movie when Randy and Pam are singing Ratt’s “Round and Round.” It’s sooooo bad. I’d also like to think that in Randy’s CTE-ravaged brain that the only thing he remembers is the word Brother and ‘80s hair metal lyrics. I mean, this is a guy we see later in the movie comes to the strip club to get a cup of coffee. Maybe he has coffee creamers at hand at all times like “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
Froemming: “Nothing means nothing?” Man, Macho Man could have been Trump’s lawyer with legal wisdom like that.
Brown: “NOTHING MEANS NOTHING! NO COLLUSION! TRUMP’S THE CREAM OF THE CROP! YEAH!”
Froemming: Now I want a Slim Jim.
Randy meets with his daughter again and gives her two gifts: A gag gift which is the ugly green thing he loved and the peacoat, which she likes. They take a walk down to the boardwalk and reminisce about their older, happier days before Randy abandoned his child out of fear. They truly have a heart-to-heart here where Stephanie realizes her father is flawed, but was never evil in his intentions and didn’t want to hurt her like he did. He is human, a broken human with gross bleached hair and the skin of a battered hotdog, but a human nonetheless. They make plans to have dinner on Saturday night.
Things are looking up for old Randy. This and the fact he likes his job at the deli counter because he uses his charisma from the ring at the store to delight the customers.
Brown: The deli was a good use of improv for Rourke. He really does deserve the praise he got for this movie.
So Randy’s job is good, relationship with his daughter is on the mend and he made out with a hot stripper. Nothing will bring Randy down.
Until Pam reminds Randy that she doesn’t mingle with customers. Then we get the downward spiral.
Turning down his advances once again, Randy gets belligerent and gets booted from the club. And instead of sleeping it off and letting cooler heads prevail, he goes to a nearby indy wrestling show to hang with the boys and feel the love from the locker room.
Going out for drinks afterwards, Randy continues the good time with a little cocaine and coitus with a fireman-loving girl who had a brother who idolized “The Ram.”
I mean, I get why this scene happens, but it feels really out of nowhere. There’s a few times where this movie has scenes like this, I think, to add some levity but it feels a little shoehorned. Just a personal nitpick.
Froemming: Yeah, it is basically a plot device for him to sleep off the coke hangover and miss dinner with his daughter. Which leads to him going to her house and having his daughter decides to cut all ties with him and say she wants nothing to do with him ever again. Which, I guess she is in luck, because this is the last time she will see her father alive.
Choose your words carefully, people. Because I imagine this will haunt Stephanie for the rest of her life.
Brown: Dunno if those words will haunt her as much as that gaudy “S” jacket in her closet.
Froemming: If she didn’t toss that in the trash 10 minutes after her father left, that is on her.
Brown: She kept it. She’s in college. She’d need a jacket like that for some hipster ‘80s party where they’d drink Bartles & Jaymes and listen to Kraftwerk.
Froemming: What do you have against Kraftwerk? They are awesome.
Down in life now, Randy breaks at the deli counter after a woman makes him add and subtract from a tub of potato salad and some dude recognizes him from his wrestling days. Now, we often use the Scarface clip when people quit their jobs in movies, but I think we need to use Randy’s quitting clip, because he smashes his fist into a deli slicer, cutting up his hand and storms out elbow smashing boxes of cereal. It is quite the exit for old Randy.
Brown: Randy’s quitting scene is what Tommy Wiseau wishes his freakout over Lisa looked like.
Froemming: If things had worked out better, would Pam have been Randy’s future wife?
Brown: I mean, I hope she had better taste in pizza than Lisa. Seriously, half Canadian bacon/pineapple, half artichoke with pesto, light on the cheese? Lisa a war criminal. Pam is a mom trying to make ends meet.
So, with Randy’s new life all but over, he decides to go back to the only place where he feels love: The wrestling ring. So he calls up a promoter who pitched him a dream match at the start of the movie: “The Ram” vs. “The Ayatollah” Part II. Despite Randy’s bum ticker, he’s back in the match.
So, back to working out. Back to the fake tan. Back to bleaching his hair and back to shaving off his body hair all in his gross trailer. If you’re gonna die, leave a good-looking corpse, I suppose.
Froemming: Decades too late for that.
Brown: For “The Ram” or for Mickey Rourke?
Froemming: It can be two things.
Well, as he is packing up the old van for one last ride, Pam has a change of heart and visits him at the trailer park. But he is in a hurry to reclaim the glory of his past, while ignoring the potential future that just arrived at his door.
This movie and “Seinfeld” has given me hope that I too could one day date Marisa Tomei.
He hands her a flyer and she realizes “wait, I thought he isn’t supposed to wrestle” by then, Randy is long gone.
Brown: I mean, is she really going to stop him? We all run into those moments in time where we’re looking for validation, looking for love, regardless of the detriment it does to ourselves. Nothing is going to replace that void in Randy’s being without wrestling. It’s why so many real-life wrestlers hang on for WAYYYY too long.
So Randy arrives at the show and we meet “The Ayatollah,” who was played by real-life former wrestler Ernest “The Cat” Miller. His wrestling career started as being like Billy Blanks (yeah, the Tai-Bo) guy and ended in WWE with him acting like James Brown.
Froemming: I love that in this, he retired and became a huge success in car sales in Arizona. He is the flip side of the coin, here.
The Ayatollah, whose real name is Bob here, doesn’t want to go over the match with Randy. He’s there for fun, he doesn’t need this in life, he is just there for a good time and to BS about the old days. Randy, this is his life, so we see these two points of view toward the match, which is interesting.
Now we come to the main event, and Pam rushes all the way to this match to stop Randy’s suicide mission. She catches him right before the match, and he says what is the most heartbreaking thing in this whole movie: Out in the ring, he can’t be hurt. The only thing that can hurt him is outside the ring (his daughter, Pam, the real world).
Which is a dirty lie of course, because the ring has hurt him plenty. Sure, I know what he is getting at, but Pam, his daughter or Todd Barry do not kill him, this match does.
Brown: It’s like the line from “The Replacements:” Pain heals, chicks dig scars, glory lasts forever.
I hate that I just quoted that movie.
Anywho, the show must go on, so “The Ram” heads to the ring with Guns ‘n Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine.” Personally, I think the song needed more reggae.
Froemming: Or maybe something from “Chinese Democracy,” an album we reviewed together more than a decade ago?
Brown: And much like real-life wrestlers, Randy and Bob have worked together so much they can do this match in their sleep. And they’re not being too labor intensive since this match is more spectacle than sport.
Well, tell that to Randy’s heart, which is causing him trouble throughout the match. Look, wrestling promoters by in large are scummy people, but I would think they’d call off a match when Randy takes off his shirt and he has a large, fresh bypass scar on his chest. No athletic commission would let him compete but because wrestling is considered “sports entertainment,” they aren’t usually beholden to sports commission.
Seriously, read up on pro wrestling sometime. It’s some shady ass stuff.
Bob calls for the match to end early, but Randy’s dead set on going out his way. So he ascends the top rope for the RAM JAM! With tears in his eyes, knowing his fate, he takes the leap and we cut to black.
Normally, ambiguous endings frustrate me, but I like it in this case.
Froemming: To be fair, it isn’t that ambiguous. I see the cut to black as his death.
Brown: You’re right. It’s not like “The Sopranos.” The RAM JAM sealed his demise. Even if he didn’t die at that very moment, he can’t get out of the life so eventually, he’s going to die in the ring. Randy sealed his fate.
Froemming: Actually, your take on that is exactly how “The Sopranos” ending is how I interpreted it.
Brown: I still hate “The Sopranos” ending.
Froemming: You’ve never watched the show.
Brown: Yep. Saw that one episode. Got so mad at the ending that I never felt the need to watch the entire series.
Froemming: Anyway, why don’t hop in our crusty vans and drive down to recommendations?
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
Brown: Absolutely. There’s a few things I still give pause to in this movie but like I said at the intro, it gets better every time I watch it.
Froemming: Oh yeah, this is a fantastic movie.