Mickey Rourke's moving, charming and physically impressive performance as "The Wrestler" carries a movie that might otherwise be another downer down-and-out flick. Reviewed by Mark Rahner.

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I’m not saying it changed my life when Rowdy Roddy Piper smashed a coconut against the head of Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka. Knocking him through the set wall of “Piper’s Pit.” And then whipped him with a belt.

Nor am I saying that you need to have experienced such a transcendent moment to root for “The Wrestler.” But you’ll like it even more if you had.

Like the ending of “Requiem for a Heavyweight” stretched through a whole movie, it’s an ultra-bleak — yet rousing — look behind the scenes at a spent athlete struggling for survival, love and a last taste of the glory that once yielded his own toy action figure. And as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, Mickey Rourke delivers such an unexpectedly moving, charming and physically impressive performance that he deserves some other award than Guy Who Gets Asked “What The Hell Happened To You?” Most Often.

Well past his glory days as a big-time pro wrestler, the aging Ram is forced to perform at venues whose increasing seediness is as punishing to his soul as the folding chairs, body slams and staple guns — yes, not a coconut but a staple gun — are to his body. Routinely locked out of his trailer home for delinquent rent, he’s estranged from his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and more or less alone in private life apart from the paid company of a stripper (Marisa Tomei). But the neighborhood kids who love to play with him, the fans who still cheer him as a good-guy character and the camaraderie — admiration, even — of the younger wrestlers behind the scenes keep the darkness from closing in on him completely.

It’s going to close in more, though.

After a heart attack sidelines The Ram, the emptiness of his life outside the ring gnaws at him. Impoverished as emotionally as he is financially, the poor bastard has to grovel for work at a grocery-store deli at the same time he reaches out to the rightfully hostile daughter and, ah, emotionally expose himself to the stripper whose rule is not to date the clientele.

I had to stop writing after that last paragraph to down four shots of Jim Beam. Why subject yourself to such a downer of a flick?

Rourke’s performance, for starters. His mutated face and pumped physique are ideal for the role. But it was also easy to forget in the years since “9 ½ Weeks,” “Angel Heart” and even the unjustly overlooked “Year of the Dragon” that the dude’s an intensely focused actor and not just the freak resurrected for “Sin City.” There’s his pathetic weeping as he tells his daughter that he doesn’t want to be alone, but take note of his infectious charisma with customers as he makes the best of the deli counter, along with the hair net and name tag that weigh on him more than a piledriver.

The movie’s unlike anything else director Darren Aronofsky has done. The hyperactive, gimmicky cutting of “Requiem for a Dream” is replaced with a stillness that seeps into your skin like the cold in the hellishly scummy New Jersey he depicts, along with the wrestlers’ world that rings utterly true. The script, by former Onion writer Robert Siegel, sometimes teeters on the rope over mawkishness but never quite jumps.

There’s a grinding inevitability to The Ram’s ultimate faceoff against longtime “heel” nemesis The Ayatollah. Call it predictable, but unlike “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” climbing back into the ring within this movie’s universe is the most righteous option for him, a way to put fate in a headlock and slam it into one last turnbuckle.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259

or mrahner@seattletimes.com