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And they reigned for most of the next decade, during which you needed an active Blockbuster membership to keep track of Rourke’s erratic movie résumé, until the actor slowly but steadily began to re-emerge from his personal and professional inferno. Vincent Gallo took a chance on Rourke, giving him a role as a bookie in the offbeat Buffalo ‘66 (1998). Another actor-director, Steve Buscemi, followed suit, casting Rourke way against type as a transvestite inmate in the underseen prison drama Animal Factory (2000). Then Rourke’s friend Sean Penn put him opposite Jack Nicholson in a three-minute scene in The Pledge (2000), and he was brilliant. As word got around about his new professionalism, bigger roles in bigger movies came Rourke’s way (Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Man on Fire, Domino), until there he was, handily stealing the show as the disfigured, partly CGI vigilante Marv — the only recognizably human element amid all the blood-splattered black-and-white stylishness — in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City.
But The Wrestler is something else entirely — a movie in which Rourke appears in almost every frame of every scene, and where, as German filmmaker Wim Wenders commented upon awarding the film the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival, he more than once breaks your heart.
“Let’s look at it this way,” Rourke says, couching things in the same metaphorical terms he uses with his therapist of more than a decade. “There’s a window, and it’s dark. We just need a little bit of sunlight here. We’ve got to do the work. We’re going to lift up the window. Then we’re going to go outside the window. Then there’s a stadium, and they’re not going to let you in to play the game, but you’re going to be out there buying a ticket to get in. Four years later, you’re watching the game from inside the stadium. Three more years go by and now you’re on the bench. Two more years go by and you’re on the field, but they’re not kicking you the ball yet. It’s been a game of inches.”
Come February, that game of inches may well land Rourke in the end zone of the Kodak Theatre. But no matter what happens, Rourke says there’s no danger that he’ll ever revert to his hell-raising ways. “Look, a little time bomb’s always gonna be in Mickey Rourke, okay?” he says. “I didn’t even want to change, but I needed to. I used to have bad people around me. Now I’ve got people around me who have my best interest at heart. But I’m always going to be a volatile cat. If someone disrespects me, it’s always going to be on, so I try not to put myself in positions where that’s going to happen. I do everything I can to avoid that, because let me tell you ... to live in a state of shame for so many years, to be a has-been ... it hurts ... it really did hurt.”
Rourke chokes on those last few words, then takes a deep breath and asks his assistant to relight his cigarette. “I’m so amazed that I’m getting a second chance,” he says. “I said this to somebody recently: God’s got a plan for us all. I sure as hell wish I would have looked at his instead of mine.”
The Wrestler opens in Los Angeles theaters on Friday, December 19.
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