Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners' guides to pop culture's most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you.
Mickey Rourke 101
Mickey Rourke exploded onto the cinematic scene with a small but crucial supporting performance in the sweltering 1981 neo-noir classic Body Heat. He would go on to play that role over and over: a sensitive brute, a degenerate with a code of ethics. In Lawrence Kasdan’s homage to Double Indemnity,Rourke’s ex-con becomes an unwitting criminal mentor to his hapless lawyer (William Hurt), whom he tutors on the basics of arson. In a neat reversal, Rourke’s scuzzy lowlife tries to steer Hurt back onto the straight-and-narrow, but his words are wasted on a man whose soul is poisoned by lust and greed. This indelible turn succinctly establishes Rourke’s persona as a man on a first-name basis with his demons. He’s the perfect tour guide to the dark side of life, a denizen of a shadowy underworld he can never escape.
If you were to distill Rourke’s career down to a single scene that best expressed his scruffy charisma and irresistible allure, it would be the classic “popcorn box” segment in 1982’s Diner, Barry Levinson’s first (and best) movie. In 1959 Baltimore, Rourke represents the paragon of cool, a smooth-talking no-goodnik who astonishes his neurotic friends with his romantic prowess. His confidence spills over into a bet with his buddies that a gorgeous blonde will touch his penis. It isn’t that they doubt this will happen, mind, but how will they know it has, so he can collect on the bet? His solution: Slip it into the bottom of a popcorn box on movie night.
When Rourke’s date finally reaches the bottom of the box, she’s horrified, and she flees the theater. But what happens next is astonishing: He follows her into the women’s bathroom and actually succeeds in talking her down via a patently ridiculous explanation about being hot-and-bothered by her and the movie, and needing to relieve the pressure that was building up under his pants. While it’s true the young woman is something of a ditz, the genius of Rourke’s performance is that he makes her (and us) want to believe a story that she must know wouldn’t hold up under the slightest scrutiny. He flatters her, makes her feel special, and cagily undermines his own cool as a way of roping her back in. It’s hard to say what’s more impressive: His plan for winning the bet, or his ability to hold onto a woman who has just experienced the most mortifying moment of her life.
Diner served as a launching pad for Rourke’s career—along with a cast teeming with future names like Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, Steve Guttenberg, Ellen Barkin, and Daniel Stern—and it also established a persona that would persist for 25 years to come. While Rourke’s character has this group of friends around him, he isn’t really one of them; he’s a rebel and a brooder who amazes them as a ladies’ man, but isn’t inclined to hang out at the table and get into petty, hyper-neurotic conversations about tipping and the relative merits of Johnny Mathis and Sinatra. The essential fact about Rourke in almost all his movies is that he’s doomed to loneliness and failure, no matter how many friends and lovers come into his orbit.
Rourke’s uncanny resemblance to Marlon Brando—both in his Method intensity and the extreme ups-and-downs of his career and personal life—became almost embarrassingly explicit in 1986’s softcore hit 9 1/2 Weeks, which is like Brando’s Last Tango In Paris re-imagined for a much stupider decade. The angst and self-loathing embedded in Brando’s performance have been dialed back by Rourke and director Adrian Lyne, and replaced by a vacant story of sexual obsession fluffed up by music-video effects and some of the silliest hanky-panky ever committed to celluloid. As a Wall Street slickster who seduces a vulnerable art dealer played by Kim Basinger, Rourke impresses with how little effort he exerts to get her to submit. All he has to do is hover a couple paces behind her at a butcher’s counter, and she’s putty in his hands.
At the time, 9 1/2 Weeks drew in the masses through reports of sex scenes far racier than customary for studio movies, and they couldn’t have been disappointed. The sexual acrobatics are certainly memorable, highlighted by the signature refrigerator scene, which was silly enough even before Hot Shots parodied it. What stands out about Rourke in the film is the voodoo he’s able to work on Basinger, who seems powerless to stop her hemorrhaging dignity and self-respect as he makes her crawl on all fours, or inspires her to paw herself on the job. (Nice work, Mr. Lyne, on the orgasm-via-slide-carousel visual metaphor.) At one point, he gives her a wristwatch and says, “Each day at noon, will you look at this watch and think of me touching you?” Kids, don’t try that at home.
Rourke solidified his credentials as cinema’s poet laureate of debauchery and moral ruin with an iconic performance as Charles Bukowski surrogate Henry Chinaski in Barbet Schroeder’s 1987 cult classic Barfly. Rourke’s stubbly, greasy-haired, slurring drunk is a goddamned mess stumbling toward grace. Rourke becomes Bukowski; when cinephiles think of the cult author, chances are good that Rourke’s handsomely decaying mug springs into their minds. The troubled actor makes boozy self-destruction look positively appealing, imbuing what may be his signature character with a sordid, bleary romanticism that doesn’t shortchange the grim realities of alcoholism.
“I’m an old, broken-down piece of meat,” Rourke tells his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) in the Oscar clip from Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, thus obliterating the line between the real-life actor and the aging, pitiable former wrestling star he plays on screen. Emerging through a lot of hard living, his face cratered by countless pummelings, plastic surgery, and the ravages of age, Rourke brings a history to the role that no other performer could have duplicated. With the perfect underdog scenario to support his comeback, the film stars Rourke as a once-famous professional wrestler reduced to a ’roided-out pug who logs time at a grocery store during the week, and relives his former glory on the weekends in grimy Jersey gymnasiums and civic centers. All the rent money that should be going into his trailer instead funds the drug supply that allows him to absorb unholy abuse in the ring.
Aronofsky, a director known for the visceral intensity of films like Pi and Requiem For A Dream, underlines the brutality between the ropes like no other film since Raging Bull. But what’s surprising about The Wrestler and Rourke’s performance is how disarmingly sweet and funny it turns out to be; for a guy who’s down on his luck and has little to show for his life, Rourke proves a resilient, good-humored hero, someone worth rooting for. The film may be remembered for that scene with his daughter on the boardwalk, or a particularly grim match with barbed wire and a staple gun, but a scene with Rourke behind a deli counter may be his finest piece of acting. Resigned to wearing a hairnet while scooping out globs of potato salad, he initially seems defeated, but he slowly comes to life and starts making the best of it, connecting with the customers as infectiously as he does with his fans.
If 9 1/2 Weeks is Rourke’s lobotomized, perfume-commercial ad take on Last Tango In Paris, then 1983’s Rumble Fish, Francis Ford Coppola’s dreamy, impressionistic, wildly pretentious adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s classic young-adult novel,is his The Wild One. Like Brando in his prime, Rourke combined brute physicality and stoic machismo with a soft, feminine voice and delicate features. Rourke plays a Neanderthal supremely in touch with his sensitive side. As a mysterious, charismatic figure known only as Motorcycle Boy, Rourke reenters the life of worshipful younger brother Matt Dillon after an extended absence cursed with ineffable sadness and exquisite world-weariness. It’s easy to see why Dillon would want to follow in his effortlessly cool older brother’s footsteps, even if they ultimately lead nowhere.
Rourke has become so synonymous with creepy intensity and Method weirdness that it’s a little jarring to see him play the straight man to Eric Roberts’ twitchy, manic schemer in the 1984 melodrama The Pope Of Greenwich Village.Rourke is Robert De Niro to Roberts’ inexplicably permed Joe Pesci, a street kid who dreams of owning his own restaurant, but gets sucked into an ill-considered robbery, with disastrous results. In the cosmology of Entourage, Pope is essentially Rourke’s Queens Boulevard,a grimy, old-fashioned New York melodrama about cousins whose dreams lead them down dark corners. This is hardly coincidental; the first season of Entourage establishes Pope as the favorite film of Adrian Grenier’s facile thespian.
Ideally cast as an unkempt, hard-drinking, chain-smoking private eye in 1987’s Angel Heart, Rourke appears in every scene, but he’s swamped by other elements, including a long-nailed Robert De Niro as “Louis Syphre,” former Cosby kid Lisa Bonet in a scandalous turn, and an overload of Southern-gothic atmosphere. It’s a shame no one thought to cast Rourke as a private eye before or since—the closest he came was as a decorated officer in Year Of The Dragon—because he’s well-suited to the solitary life of a gumshoe who gets kicked around on his way to the truth. The climactic confrontation with De Niro brings out the Brando in him again (“I know who I am!”), but better still are the subtler scenes where Rourke tries to coax information from reluctant sources, or puts the moves on the bewitching bayou vixen played by Bonet. Too bad the film is mostly remembered for a supremely ridiculous sex scene between Rourke and Bonet in which the rainwater dripping from the ceiling above turns into a torrent of blood.
Perhaps the most underrated movie of Rourke’s career, Walter Hill’s ragged little 1989 B-movie Johnny Handsome bears the marks of post-production abuse as nakedly as Rourke’s mangled, Elephant Man-like face at the beginning of the film. But the story of a professional crook who’s set up on a smash-and-grab jewel heist, gets reconstructive surgery while in prison, and emerges to take revenge on the scoundrels who betrayed him has a pulpy appeal that plays to Hill’s strengths as a hard-hitting genre director. Heading a loaded cast that includes Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Lance Hendrickson, Ellen Barkin, and Elizabeth McGovern, Rourke undergoes a dramatic transformation from mush-mouthed freak to slick, partially reformed avenger. His characters’ desire to make his enemies pay for killing a friend and taking years from his life is counterbalanced by gratitude toward the doctor (Whitaker) who helped him, and a genuine effort to redeem himself. It’s a meaty, wide-ranging performance in a movie too wounded for anyone to take much notice.
The undisputed heavyweight king of professional self-sabotage, Rourke has historically run away from success and lunged deliriously into the ever-loving arms of failure. According to notstarring.com, Rourke turned down prominent roles in hits like 48 Hours, Highlander, The Untouchables, Top Gun, Rain Man,and Pulp Fiction in favor of pursuing a non-starting boxing career and a string of forgettable flops. Rourke turned down the role of wry boxer “Butch” in Pulp Fiction,only to play Butch “Bullet” Stein in Bullet, a memorably insane 1996 Tarantino homage Rourke co-wrote under the fancy-sounding pseudonym “Sir Eddie Cooke,” with Bruce Rubenstein. Bullet casts the sad-eyed character actor as a heroin-addled Jewish ex-con at war with a one-eyed kingpin played by Tupac Shakur. A familiar aura of fatalism hangs heavy over Bullet; like so many of his no-hopers, Rourke’s two-bit hood seems resigned to failure, yet his desire to protect his gifted younger brother (Adrien Brody) keeps him from embracing nihilism completely.
By the time Mickey Rourke appeared as frequently shirtless Eurotrash weapons dealer Stavros in the spectacularly ill-advised 1997 Jean Claude Van Damme/Dennis Rodman buddy picture Double Team, his career was in freefall. His chest glazed in a deep bronze perma-tan, Rourke looked like a professional bodybuilder who had raided every questionable pill and powder he could find at the local GNC. The role is pure self-parody, but damned if it and the movie aren’t the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. Sure, the dialogue between Van Damme and Rodman is hilariously wooden and tone-deaf, loaded with references to Rodman’s basketball exploits even though his character has no connection to the game. But Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, who would team up with Van Damme a year later on the also enjoyably nutso Knock Off, brings the full force of his visual imagination to the action sequences, which are beautifully stylized. Rourke’s unforgettable demise involves an ancient coliseum, landmines marked with crosses, Rodman on a motorcycle, a ferocious tiger, and a wall of bomb-resistant Coke machines. What’s not to like?
Rourke’s time in the wilderness may have temporarily lost him legitimacy as a reputable leading man, but he never stopped working, and in the late ’90s and early ’00s, he quietly reinvented himself as a first-rate character actor. Minor turns in 1997’s The Rainmaker, 1998’s Buffalo ’66, and 2001’s The Pledge all left a vivid impression, even if he only appeared for a scene or two. They all capitalized on the world-weary, long-in-the-tooth Rourke that Aronofsky would exploit to such great effect in The Wrestler. It isn’t easy for an actor christened by some as the best of his generation to retire into the life of a journeyman actor living hand-to-mouth on bit parts, and The Wrestler may well give Rourke the resurgence he desires. But failing that, he could thrive out of the spotlight.
The Rainmaker casts him as a lawyer with a name, “Bruiser Stone,” that does half the work for him. Rourke plays a two-bit slickster who runs his firm out of a strip mall in Memphis. With his greased-back gray hair, goatee, yellow-tinted sunglasses, and conspicuous ruby ring, Rourke oozes enough sleaze that he doesn’t even need that shark tank in his office to make the point. John Grisham’s tale of a young, smart, ambitious attorney (Matt Damon) facing the corrupting forces of the legal world is more than a little familiar, and Francis Ford Coppola seems to be directing with one foot in the currency exchange. But Rourke has a blast playing the sort of rogue who operates with a one-way ticket to the Caribbean at the ready.
Buffalo ’66 and The Pledge are both one-scene wonders, but he makes a strong impression in a short time. Directors Vincent Gallo and Sean Penn, respectively, are wise enough to keep the staging simple and give Rourke a lot of room to operate. In Buffalo ’66, Rourke plays a bookie to whom Gallo owes $10,000 for foolishly betting on the Buffalo Bills to beat the New York Giants in the 1990 Super Bowl; in lieu of a payoff, Rourke muscles Gallo into taking the fall for one of Rourke’s cronies, and logging a five-year prison sentence. In a powerful monologue, Rourke plays the enforcer through quiet intimidation. In The Pledge, he’s equally reserved but much more vulnerable, appearing as a father so devastated by his daughter’s murder that he’s retired to a solarium, barely able to relay to his story to an investigator played by Jack Nicholson.
The Wrestler may be Rourke’s official comeback, but his movie-stealing role in 2005’s Sin City put him definitively on the right track. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s obsessive effort to make the film look like the pages of Miller’s graphic novel served Rourke particularly well, since his real-life body and facial features were already bordering on the cartoonish. In “The Hard Goodbye,” the third and strongest pulp story in the film, Rourke stars as a hulking bruiser who’s like a cross between The Thing in the Fantastic Four comics and Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly. When he wakes up to find his beloved murdered beside him, Rourke’s character sets about finding the killer through brute force alone. Why bother with inquiry when you can grab a bum by the lapels and drag him along the pavement in a moving car?
Starting with a minor turn in his infamous flop Heaven’s Gate, Rourke took a good five years between each of his three collaborations with Michael Cimino—time enough, one would think, for the two to settle down and figure out exactly what the hell they were doing. Unfortunately, time doesn’t always translate to effort. These are two artists given over to extremely distinctive personal choices in their work (the less-forgiving would call them tics), and they never found a way to mesh together, as is clearly evident in their second team-up, 1985’s Year Of The Dragon.
It doesn’t help much that Oliver Stone provided the screenplay. When it works, the film gives Rourke, playing an embittered New York police captain at war with a vicious young crime boss, a chance to indulge the filthy energy that Stone’s early work was known for. And it’s difficult to fault Cimino’s visual sensibilities, which are as keen and devoted to detail as ever. But the three competing visions of masculinity in Rourke’s street toughness, Stone’s defensive macho posturing, and Cimino’s traditionalist male bonding make Year Of The Dragon a thematic mess that ends up overheated and stiff overall. And while Rourke does what he can with the role of a Vietnam vet whose traumatic experiences are triggered by the violent crime in Chinatown, he wasn’t yet 30 when he made the picture, and he lacked the grizzled physicality to make the part work for him. He tries to compensate by ramping up the hard-boiled old-pro act, but in every scene, he’s at war with Stone’s script and with one of the worst hairdos in modern memory, a spiky monstrosity whose gray comes and goes as if Rourke was constantly walking in and out of a cloud of talcum powder.
Rourke’s third time working with Cimino was even less of a charm. Teaming up with producer Dino De Laurentiis in 1990, Cimino took a crack at updating the classic Humphrey Bogart home-invasion thriller The Desperate Hours by turning up the gas in every aspect of production. A so-bad-it’s-good classic, the film benefited Rourke only in that he gives the fifth or sixth most ridiculous performance, falling well behind a hammy Anthony Hopkins as a husband who protects his family by shouting, Lindsay Crouse as an FBI agent with a tight perm and an inexplicable accent, and Kelly Lynch as the go-to source of gratuitous nudity. Rourke doesn’t fare well when the action requires him to go over-the-top like everyone else, but he shows promise in the early going as a gentleman crook who takes down a freaked-out Mimi Rogers and wears a tuxedo to dinner.
Though Rourke’s worst performances are mostly the result of him coasting lazily on his mumbly, bad-boy charms, he tackled an Irish accent in 1987’s A Prayer For The Dying, with disastrous results. It’s hard to tell whether it’s the accent itself that scotches Rourke’s turn as an IRA bomber who tries to give up the killing game, or that Rourke just isn’t the type of actor who should be doing accents. (See also Brando in Viva Zapata! or Burn!) In either case, even a brilliant performance couldn’t forgive the film’s ham-handed morality tale, directed by Mike Hodges in the creative desert between his superb crime films Get Carter and Croupier.
Throughout his career, Rourke has taken the whole Method-actor thing to its logical extreme, and beyond. Rourke didn’t just study boxers or boxing to prepare for roles like Homeboy; he became a professional boxer. According to Hollywood legend, Rourke engaged in what can only be deemed “Method fucking” during his sex scenes with Wild Orchid love interest Carré Otis. The Method fucking didn’t end once the cameras stopped rolling, either; Rourke embarked on a stormy affair and marriage to Otis that ended in charges of abuse and rampant infidelity. The gorgeous but vacant Otis plays a brilliant lawyer who speaks six languages, even though she can barely handle her native English. In a veritable replay of 9 1/2 Weeks,his other collaboration with softcore maestro Zalman King, Rourke’s enigmatic businessman ushers Otis into a seamy, dangerous nighttime realm of ripe sexuality and kinky perversions, but the actor’s trademark brooding sensitivity has seldom felt emptier or more mechanical. Rourke had returned to this oversexed well at least once too often, but he couldn’t stop while desperately behind. In 1997, Rourke made a 9 1/2 Weeks sequel (Another 9 1/2 Weeks) even King wanted nothing to do with.
In 1991’s Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man (a.k.a. Product Placement: The Movie),Rourke and Don Johnson play the title characters, respectively. Rourke’s Harley Davidson enthusiast is Motorcycle Boy minus the angst and gravity, while Don Johnson is a rhinestone cowboy and would-be rodeo rider; together, they’re just a construction worker, a Native American, a sailor, and a police officer away from re-forming the Village People. Simon Wincer’s extravagantly dopey futuristic Western is a bubblegum take on Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid that finds Rourke and Johnson taking on drug dealers while wisecracking their way through shootouts, fights, and various homoerotic scenarios. The blank-eyed Rourke, who credits his mercenary participation in the film with inspiring the self-hatred that defined the next decade of his career, is here in body, if not spirit. He’s clearly on cruise control, just another Hollywood hack whoring himself out for a big paycheck.
Rourke had long since lapsed into bloated self-parody when he signed on for a flashy supporting role as a porn-obsessed crystal-meth addict in Jonas Åkerlund’s assaultive, migraine-inducing 2002 black comedy Spun. Cast opposite the fresh-faced likes of Jason Schwartzman and Almost Famous’ puppyish Patrick Fugit, Rourke swaggers through the grungy proceedings like an elder statesman of moral dissipation; he’s a not-so-beautiful loser who wears the scars of a lifetime of bad mistakes and self-abuse proudly.
Rourke reportedly turned down the role of a grizzled bounty hunter who teaches sexy former model Keira Knightley the mysterious ways of the skip-tracer in Tony Scott’s 2005 film Domino until screenwriter Richard Kelly beefed up the part. Rourke should have just turned it down, period. He does compelling work nonetheless, but the nuances and shadings get lost in the overwrought, mind-numbing excess that characterizes both the film and the director’s insufferable late-period work in general. Thankfully, The Wrestler and creative and commercial redemption were just around the corner.
1. The Wrestler (2008): After a long period in exile, Rourke scored the role and comeback of a lifetime as an aging wrestler with a bum ticker and a lifetime of regrets in Darren Aronofsky’s heartbreaking character study. It’s an exquisitely quiet film about the loudest and flashiest of “sports,” as well as a tender, empathetic, beautifully observed portrait of a professional gladiator in twilight.
2. Diner (1982): The original “dick in a box” is the obvious touchstone in Barry Levinson’s winning debut feature, which went a long way toward establishing a screen persona that would stick with Rourke for more than a quarter-century. But for all his brooding cool, there’s as much innocence to Rourke’s role as there is in the other, less-edgy performances from the rest of the cast. And in light of all the dark places Rourke’s life and career would go, it’s refreshing to revisit the film and see him having a good time before the shadows crept in.
3. Body Heat (1981): An impossibly young, handsome, and charismatic Rourke didn’t need more than a few minutes of screen time to make an indelible impression on moviegoers as a principled arsonist in Lawrence Kasdan’s neo-noir. Rourke turns in the kind of effortlessly magnetic, attention-grabbing performance that makes audiences wonder, “Who is that man and where can I see more of him?” His subsequent career represented a death match between the actor’s ferocious talent and his equally ferocious genius for squandering that talent.
4. Barfly (1987): Rourke’s brawling, soulful persona was tailor-made for the barroom romanticism and purple poetry of Charles Bukowski’s life and work, so it was perhaps inevitable that Rourke would play a thinly veiled version of the cult poet/author in 1987’s shadow biopic. Like the author whose outsized legend and colorful mythology is hopelessly intertwined with his own, Rourke has lived his dangerous art yet miraculously survived, battered and bruised but defiant.
5. Sin City (2005): Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s graphic novel come to life exploits Rourke’s gravelly voice, pumped-up frame, and age-pocked face to great pulp effect as a loveable thug who pummels his way to the truth about who killed his girlfriend. The film itself hasn’t aged well—Miller’s dire The Spirit, which employed a similar style, did it no favors—but Rourke embodies the adrenalized retro-noir feeling that Rodriguez and Miller only intermittently achieve.