“Wallace Beery. Wrestling picture. What do you need, a roadmap?”
About a washed-up wrestler who gets one last shot at glory, this is a film we’ve seen in many iterations. And they tend to be either exceptionally good or incredibly awful. The story is simple: the underdog against all odds. It’s a fantastic hero’s tale, naturally suited to conflict situations that emphasize physicality and showmanship, such as wrestling or boxing. Or the Kumite, to include an example from the awful pile.
It would easy to map out the beats. At first a loser or otherwise wounded, but likable of course, our hero decides to get back into the game for one last shot at glory or redemption. We see him overcome obstacle after obstacle. Could be his physical limitations, opponents both obvious and concealed, a disapproving love interest or family member, self doubt, or all of the above. Reaching his goal becomes more challenging, but the hero never loses sight of it. He must persevere.
Then, on the eve of the Big Fight, there’s critical plot twist when all seems lost. True enemies are revealed, and are more powerful that our hero thought. Or there is a devastating loss, such as the death of a key ally or mentor. At this point, we anxiously ask, “Will he still fight?”
Of course he will. And he will either win or lose, depending on what kind of emotions the storytellers want to play with. But whatever the outcome, our hero will have undergone a profound change. (Check out David Mamet’s admirable Redbelt, which follows essentially the same format but with a very different take on the Big Fight. Here Mamet frames the conflict in his hero’s inner struggle, a zen-like exposition on honor and the warrior code. In this regard, Redbelt has more lineage in a Sergio Leone western or a Kurosawa samurai epic.)
Like I said, films like The Wrestler either succeed or fail, precisely because their stories are simply told; the line that separates Rocky Balboa from say, Eric Roberts in Best of the Best, is a thin one. What differentiates them seems to be an ineffable quality to the writing, as well as the performances and the deftness of direction.
I believe it begins with characterization—the situations are practically interchangeable—and that means the quality of the writing. What words and deeds the lonely screenwriter can use to help actors breathe life into their characters. If I can laugh and cheer at their successes, wince at the blows they suffer, identify on some level with their struggle, then what I’m really seeing are aspects of myself, tapping into my own history.
(Kev at Kevie Metal has a more, er, artistic perspective of the film—particularly of Rourke’s co-star Marisa Tomei… Very nice, Kev.)