Mickey Rourke: a life in film

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To celebrate the release of 'The Wrestler', Time Out takes a look at the highs, lows and many middles of the career of Mickey Rourke

 
 

The Motorcycle Boy

After a few bits and pieces in TV movies and a toothy turn in Michael Cimino’s doomed Western folly ‘Heaven’s Gate’ (1980) Mickey Rourke blew on to our screens with a scene-stealing cameo as a nervy explosives expert in Lawrence Kasdan’s saucy 1981 potboiler ‘Body Heat’. Hollywood’s ears were well and truly pricked and he subsequently scored the meatiest, showiest parts in Barry Levinson’s ‘Diner’, fifth-form fave ‘Rumble Fish’ (both 1983) and seminal chump-change caper ‘The Pope of Greenwich Village’ (1984) before being wilfully miscast as a 50-year-old police captain in Cimino’s muddled procedural ‘Year of the Dragon’ (1985).

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Love on the rocks - ‘Barfly’ (1987)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

'I got a thing about chickens…’

When you’re hot, you’re hot and – his Chinatown misfire notwithstanding – The Mickster soon found himself vying for the front covers of teen movie mags and modish style-sheets with the likes of Cruise and Kilmer after the triple whammy of box-office dynamite of ‘Nine ½ Weeks’ (1986), rumpled horror ‘Angel Heart’ (1987) and his expertly mannered portrait of dog-faced pornographer Charles Bukowski in ‘Barfly’ (1987). Bukowski details the making of the film in his book ‘Hollywood’ and it’s clear he genuinely likes and admires Rourke, but even Bukowski – hard-living iconoclast par excellence – finds some of Mickey’s spoilt antics a little hard to swallow. Were the gilded trappings of fame and a self-destructive streak a mile wide already getting the better of his undiluted talent?

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‘Slick – Johnny Handsome’ (1989)

Mickey Fin?

Being given enough rope to write and star in shameless vanity project ‘Homeboy’ (1988) suggests that Tinsletown was certainly indulging our boy. He plays a has-been boxer who takes one last fight in order to save an orphanage (actually a dilapidated fairground, but you get the idea). It’s a hideous confection enlivened only by Christopher Walken as an ass-grabbing lounge singer. ‘Johnny Handsome’ (1989), on the other hand, is a real gem in which Mickey, under the guidance of tough-guy director Walter Hill, gives what might well be his best performance to date as a deformed hoodlum. Unfortunately, the troubles surrounding the production of dubious IRA hitman romp ‘A Prayer For the Dying’ (1987) were gathering into career-threatening storm clouds. Publicly placing the films lack of success squarely on the shoulders of producer – and undisputed Hollywood royalty – Samuel Goldwyn made him enemies all over town. Rourke’s later claims that he gave part of his fee for ‘Francesco’ (1989) to the Provisional IRA and a fearsome reputation made him a risky proposition in the eyes of increasingly wary studios.

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‘Harley Davidson & the Marlboro Man’

Running on vapours
Whether the deals were already in place or the films were in the can, Mickey did manage a few more high profile pictures during the early '90s. He conjoured a furious performance for Michael Cimino’s dire remake of home-invasion classic ‘Desperate Hours’ (1990) and looked cool and dangerous as morally available CIA contract agent Gorman Lennox alongside Willem Dafoe in ‘White Sands’ (1992). Nestled between these is the balls-out awfulness of ‘Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man’ (1991). Playing a grown-up version of the Motorcycle Boy from ‘Rumble Fish’, Mickey drools while Don Johnson drawls through an endless series of bar fights interspersed with some lame Zen posturing. Anyone hoping for a freewheelin’ postmodern wing-ding will be disappointed with eighty-odd minutes of two grubby jag-offs with very silly names moseying through an especially formulaic buddy-movie. A bleary-looking Mickey took a huge payday and later called the whole enterprise a sell-out. Amen.

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The ring’s the thing - Sugar Ray Rourke

Boxing clever

It might have been entirely coincidental, but just as the film offers started drying up, Rourke decided that acting was – and we really are paraphrasing here – ‘too wussy’, and embarked on a belated boxing career. Was this the end of Mickey in the movies? Over the years he’d turned down lead roles in ‘Highlander’, ‘Rain Man’ and ‘The Untouchables’ and burnt every major bridge to mainstream success. But while he was slugging away at the bottom of the pugilistic pyramid, he still had bills to pay, so kept the wolf from the door with the likes of ‘Exit in Red’ (1996), a half-baked slice of existential desert noir in which he plays a psychiatrist with salt-bleached surf-bum hair who wears flashy sunglasses during sessions. He lazily recast ‘Homeboy’ as a rodeo parable for ‘F.T.W.’ (1994) and also wrote ‘Bullet’ (1996), in which he co-starred with pal Tupac Shakur under the misdirection of Julien Temple. The tail end of this undeniably fallow period saw him take on baddy duties opposite Jean-Claude Van Damme and former NBA crossdresser Dennis Rodman in ‘Double Team’ (1997) – a film that simply has to be seen to be believed.

The Hard-Luck Round

Even with the boxing and the hellraising now behind him, Mickey found serious work hard to come by. Coppola had to fight to get him even a small part in his excellent Grisham adaptation ‘The Rainmaker’ (1997) and he managed only a few cameos in independent films by supportive actor-director fans such as Vincent Gallo (‘Buffalo ‘66’ [1998]) and Steve Buscemi (‘Animal Factory’ [2000]) in between such inauspicious STV duffers as ‘Shades’, ‘Shergar’ and ‘Cousin Joey’ (all 1999). But Mickey’s a fighter at heart, and while he was busy plugging away, directors and producers gradually started realising what they were missing…

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Heavy ordnance – ‘Domino’ (2005)

Return of the king

The turn of the millennium saw Rourke pull a decent shift in Jack Nicholson’s top-heavy acting workshop ‘The Pledge’ (2001) and spin a frankly staggering turn in Jonas Åkerlund’s pimply speedfreak saga ‘Spun’ (2002) - the high point of which saw him deliver a gloriously unhinged speech about the timeless power of ‘the pussy’ against the backdrop of the Stars‘n’Stripes. In escaping unscathed from the wreckage of Robert Rodriguez’s overstuffed piñata ‘Once Upon a Time in Mexico’ (2003) and essaying the only interesting character in Frank Miller’s dank misogynist mood-mare ‘Sin City’ (2005), he had all-but completed a hugely unlikely return to the big-time. The first chance to flex his muscles came in Tony Scott’s filter-heavy shouting match ‘Domino’ (also 2005). The film – which makes up Scott’s Wobbly-cam trilogy along with ‘Man on Fire’ (2004) and ‘Déjà Vu’ (2006) – sees Rourke join a bonkers cast that includes Dabney Coleman, Macy Gray, Jerry Springer as himself and Keira Knightly as bounty hunter Domino Harvey. It’s a mess, naturally, but Rourke is more than believable as a hardnut bail bondsman and owns the screen until edged out by the films ludicrous overplotting and pointless histrionics.And now he’s back in Darren Aronofsky’s redemptive rumble ‘The Wrestler’ as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, a man who’s been through the ringer, blown every chance he’s ever had and now has one last shot to un-fuck everything up. Now that’s casting!

Author: Adam Lee Davies



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