Mickey Rourke: Now that he's back, what kind of movie star can he be?

mickey-rourkeImage Credit: AFP/Stringer/Getty ImagesEven for those of us who cheered, and cherished, the comeback of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008), there’s no denying that that once-in-a-lifetime resurrection steered his career smack into a giant question mark. The question was: What could he possibly do next? As marvelous as he was in The Wrestler, everything about the role seemed so… singular. The poignant, ingeniously conceived parallel between Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s broken-down career and lost-in-the-1980s glory days and Mickey Rourke’s own faded greatness. The way that Rourke’s ruined beauty — the face like melted rubber, a Silly Putty tragedy mask — became the living embodiment of a character who had battered himself, body and soul, into a hulking wreck of flesh. And, of course, the whole comeback scenario itself, which resonated uniquely beyond the edges of the movie screen, so that Rourke seemed to be acting out a metaphorical version of his own teary-eyed resilience. The Wrestler was as canny and artful a platform as a matinee-idol–turned–macho-freak– turned–Hollywood-has-been–turned–great-actor-all-over-again could possibly have hoped for. But given that, what could Mickey Rourke do for an encore?

Just about the first thing he did was extremely shrewd. With the red carpet now rolled out for him (though for how long, no one could guess), he struck while the awards glow was hot and signed on to play the villain in Iron Man 2, thereby proving his viability as a mainstream star. It was a resolutely ace move, because in Hollywood today, you’re either bankable or you’re nobody, and Rourke, it’s clear, had had enough of being nobody. As the Russian superbaddie Ivan Vanko, whipping around those high-voltage lightning lanyards, brooding in his lab, Rourke is just fine: a Slavic brute with a heart of stone. But when you hear the actor talk about how he worked for months on his Russian accent, you can’t help but wish that there was a little more to the character — that Vanko’s hatred of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark weren’t so one-dimensional, that it led to somewhere where Rourke could really, you know, act.

The point is that he gets the job done; he does the cartoon-evil comic-book dance. And that dutiful marionette spirit — the thing that to me, frankly, limits his performance — is what makes Rourke, in Iron Man 2, come off as such a good Hollywood soldier, an actor who paid his dues, stretched his art wings, and is now ready to rock according to the industry’s franchise terms. And make no mistake: Rourke is such a supple actor that in his big, beefy hands, playing the game looks not so much cynical as downright invigorating. On Jimmy Kimmel Live! last week, he was funny and punchy and loose, with a lot less of that woeful abashment that marked his publicity appearances at the time of The Wrestler. This time, Rourke worked the angle of grooving on his success, and it looked good on him. You could even see bits of the old Rourke coming through, the one from the ’80s who would bat his James Dean eyelashes and curl his Elvis lips and make flirting seem like the highest form of sincerity. For a moment, you almost forget that Rourke now resembles Elvis Frankenstein.

And that’s the real issue, isn’t it? What can an actor who’s as great as Mickey Rourke, but who now looks the way that Mickey Rourke looks, do to find his place in a movie culture now dominated by facile, airy youthful beauty? For openers, he’ll be seen later this summer, playing a character named Tool in The Expendables, a retro action thriller, directed by and starring Sylvester Stallone, that gathers together many a grade-B star from the ’80s. And Rourke is reportedly in talks to star as Sonny Barger in a Hells Angels movie to be directed by Tony Scott, which could be an inspired role for him.

But can’t you already see the pattern here? The comeback of Mickey Rourke may indeed stick, because with his scarred façade and sensitive roughneck mystique, he’s a naturally stylized bruiser-saint who could corner the market on a certain type of pulp action-comix testosterone-on-steroids cachet. The irony is that where he was once odd man out, he’s now odd man in; he can fit all too snugly into a movie industry that is now built, to a large degree, on stylized, action-brute, anti-psychological characters. But I also hope that the new, iron-man Mickey Rourke keeps looking for adventurous chances to act. I hope that he thinks outside the box, instead of getting trapped in a box of new-style hipster-hulk typecasting.

Which leads me to ask: How would you cast Mickey Rourke? What sort of role would you now like to see him take on? Should he play a thriller demigod, a Mob boss, Stanley Kowalski, or maybe a middle-aged art-house chick-flick romantic hero paired with…whom? And do you think that Hollywood is going to respond to his comeback by doing him justice, or turning him into an outsize cartoon?

Comments (62 total) Add your comment
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  • Stephanie T.

    What type of movie star can he be? Come on. The dude messed his handsome face up. He’s back to the roles he played before 9 1/2 weeks: low lifes, bad guys, and thugs. With The Wrestler, he made you feel sorry for him but still, forget him ever getting George Clooney roles.

    • Moe

      LONG LIVE ROURKE. How Sean Penn won that Oscar is an outrage!! Just because Hollywood was going through it’s gay and lesbian phase doesn’t mean we should rob a man from a truly worthy Oscar performance.

      • Kamen

        I agree: Mickey should have won that Oscar.

      • Nick T

        I loved Milk, but Rourke should have won.

      • Michael Longacre

        yep he should of took it all

    • Sally in Chicago

      I kind of agree. But maybe his face now is a positive toward getting roles where he’s a Character actor….action roles….He was a pretty boy in his youth…now he’s a tough guy, hardass….and he can play soft and cushy too, even with that face. Which seems to have more character.
      I just wonder what he would “naturally” look like had he aged naturally.

      • Raysmith

        He would have aged the way Paul Newman aged the same handsome face just older.

    • andrea

      It is very unfortunate about the botched plastic surgery. i saw 9 1/2 weeks the other day and he was a great looking man. I think he will pull through though.

  • Rob Grizzly

    He was also the brute Marv in Sin City- and was the best thing about that movie. I think he should stick to those kind of roles: the misunderstood beast. (Randy The Ram was a sort of variation on that)

  • Derek

    I was a fan of his in the 80’s and he could still be a vital character actor. I would advise him to stop injecting his characters with his own fashion sense and style. I mean, it’s a bit ridiculous – his hair, sunglasses, jewellery… even the cockatoo in Iron Man 2 (apparently his idea, culled from his own penchant for keeping small animals).

  • Joel Scott

    You guys aren’t much in the way of being Rourkefiles. Don’t you know that later this year Rourke is starring in a surreal, romantic thriller with Megan Fox where he plays a down-and-out trumpet player and she plays a circus freak with wings. They both are playing the odd-ones-out in this film (Bill Murray plays a bad guy gangster). By the way, the cinematography was done by the great Christopher Doyle (“In THe Mood For Love”, And “Chung King Express” among other works) so it definitely will be an artful feast for the eyes. THe film is called “Passion Play” and I’m really looking forward to it. I bet a lot of the Whiplash character Rourke created never ended up on the screen, which is to be expected in such a cartoon fantasy. He did a great job, though, as an elemental force of vengance with a human side.

  • aaron

    I love his face. I think it’s real and his talent should dictate the films he’s in. There’s no reason he couldn’t play a good cop. Not a misunderstood good cop. A good cop like Bruce Willis in Die Hard. I’d rather see him as the hero than Brad Pitt. Mickey Rourke has more range and he’s real. Have you ever noticed that car windshields in movies are never dirty? That’s the problem with Hollywood. Hollywood needs to dirty up their movies a little bit. Just because you’re attractive doesn’t mean you’re a hero and just because you’re unattractive doesn’t mean you’re a villain or misunderstood. When Hollywood tries to be “real” it puts a beard on Denzell Washington. What about Mickey Rourke???

    • Deborah

      Aaron you are absolutely right. Why can’t he play a romantic lead? A hero? An everyman? Tommy Lee Jones, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, these are men whose faces have aged and yet they are still compelling and downright sexy. As I write this I’m trying to think of an actor of my generation that guarantees my purchase of a movie ticket, Um Ryan Whatshisname? Matthew Iforgotmyshirt? Talk about one dimensional actors, but Tommy Lee, Clint, Mickey? Oh yeah, I’m so there.

    • ew-bot

      I think it’s clear that Rourke will play roles where the lived-in look will make sense. Hard living or just really hard-working men. No reason they have to be crooks, although he does that well too. Cop I could see, or how about firefighter, journalist in the Russell Crowe mold, Miner, Soldier, Craftsman, Construction worker. I disagree that his portrayal of Vanko lacked all dimension. While it wasn’t written to be Oscar-bait, I thought he added a great deal to it. The internal logic of the character made sense to me, and the tone he took was in sync with the rest of the film. I thought he was wonderful.

    • el

      exactly. well put

  • Manny

    I just want to see Mickey happy and healthy and working with good people on quality material. He’s the man. You gotta love him.

  • Alicia

    You gotta love a guy who loves his dogs.

    • Kim

      I agree with that.. he seems like a total sweeheart!

  • Mac

    Did Rourke have words with you at some point in the past, Mr. Gleiberman? This article is so full of backhanded compliments – for every aknowledgement of his acting skills, there are two digs on his looks. I realize that he is far removed from his dreamboat swagger of the 80’s, but you discuss him as if he’s a modern day Elephant Man. It distracts from your overall point-of-view.

  • stewq

    Rourke is more of a protean force than most folks give him credit for. His portrayal of a perky transvestite in the Steve Buscemi-directed prison tale, “Animal Factory”, is a role few in Hollywood could have pulled off. Likewise, his enigmatic performance as The Cook in “Spun” is yet another underappreciated cult classic and a testament to his range: http://bit.ly/bFo6rE

  • Captain Average

    First off, I think you’re completely wrong about Rourke’s performance in Iron Man 2. In every frame he’s in, he projects an undercurrent of such sorrow at his father’s fate that it widens his hatred of Stark into a rage that is something far beyond mere comic book menace.

    How would I cast him now? Given his way with the [admittedly small] witty bits that he got in IM2, I’d like to see him in a low-rent version of a Nick & Nora Charles mystery – possibly paired with someone like Bette Midler – a husband and wife at a low point in their lives, who stumble into a mystery but somehow solve it in a lower-class, but sordidly stylish manner.

    I’d pay to see that.

    • Edmonton Girl

      That sounds like fun! It also sounds too interesting for Hollywood. Maybe you should write the screenplay for him. ‘lower class but sordidly stylish’ – I think I would pay to see that too.

  • Danielle

    Owen, either pat yourself or your web editor on the back for that deft use of hyphens and N-dashes. Bravo!

  • Joel Scott

    When it comes to Rourke we are in uncharted territory – you can’t compare him to George Clooney or Brad Pitt or any of those typical Hollywood stars. First, hes a WAY better actor (which they’d probably acknowledge) and he’s lived a much more turbulent, reality-based life. I think he’s more than a star or even a great actor – he’s become almost a “sacred monster” or some kind of mythic character from our dreams(or, in some cases, nightmares). The thing is he’s completely fascinating to watch on-screen, so I’ll always go to see anything he’s in.

  • Chris

    Rourke’s comeback started with Sin City. He was head and shoulders above everyone else in that movie.

  • Teresa

    What can he be in? Are you kidding? He’d be a natural for Jon Jackon’s “Fang” Mulhausen or JL Abramo’s “Jake Diamond” or Chris Knopf’s “Sam Acquillo” or Laurence Block’s “Keller” or anything by James Ellroy. And he was the only thing worth watching in Iron Man 2.

    • Joel Scott

      I agree, Rourke was the most compelling part of “Iron Man 2″. Its ridiculous to compare him with George Clooney or anyone like that – Rourke is a WAY better actor, of course – more comparable to Brando. Mickey’s comeback is unchartered territory – he will be UNIQUE. We have enough cooki-cutter pretty boys.

  • jrrrz

    i have enjoyed Mickey Rourke’s last couple of movies. i really liked that movie named KILLSHOT where he was a hitman.
    lots of good actors in the movie..Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane, Thomas Jane,Rosario Dawson and specially Joesph Gordon Levitt.

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