Don’t worry. Mickey Rourke is not dead. Today (September 16) is Mickey Rourke’s birthday. When I say I miss Mickey, he’s not missing from life, but missing from relevance. Through the entirety of the 80s he was my favorite actor. His run during that decade was full of no-bullshit characterizations swimming in an impossible amount of charisma. It seemed nothing would ever stop him. But he was stopped, sadly, by the only thing that could.
Rourke became bored with movies, though he kept making them. He had an exceedingly volatile relationship with model Carre Otis that did nothing for either of them. His dalliance with boxing left his face beaten and broken, and after more plastic surgery than three Chers, he was left nearly unrecognizable. Ever since, he’s been all but absent from the world of film.
But man, what a stretch he had in the 80s. Once that roll stopped, he’d occasionally pop up in a good movie, but in parts so small that they were beneath his talent. He had alienated so much of Hollywood with his bad behavior that he often had to be gifted roles by friendly directors like Coppola, or fans of his early work like Robert Rodriguez.
Then, for a brief moment, it all came back. He scored the plumb role of Marv in Sin City and made the most of it, winning best supporting actor from the Chicago Film Critics. He doubled down on that success with his greatest movie performance in Darren Aronofsky’s majestic The Wrestler. He then scored a silly but entertaining role as the villain in Iron Man 2. Sadly, these late career triumphs did not result in more roles of note, and he’s back in the wilderness making straight-to-streaming fodder that no one wants to see, least of all me. It’s just too depressing.
Still, while we may not have all that we wanted from Rourke, what we do have is choice.
Here is everything worth seeing:
Body Heat – It wasn’t Rourke’s debut, but it sure as hell was his coming out party. Singing along to Bob Seger’s “Feel Like A Number” coming out of his radio at full blast, Rourke bursts off the screen. And when he says to his lawyer (played by William Hurt) “Are you listening to me asshole?” It’s as if he was born to utter the words.
Diner – One of the great ensemble pieces of the decade (even Steve Gutenberg was okay). Rourke shines as the hairdresser whose own bouffant is just below Little Richard levels.
Rumble Fish – Francis Ford Coppola made two films based on SE Hinton novels. The Outsiders is far better known, but Rumble Fish is the one that doesn’t suck. Shot in dreamy black and white, it’s a true art movie and has largely been lost amongst the director’s better-known films. That’s a shame, because while Matt Dillon and Diane Lane are superb, it’s Rourke’s Motorcycle Boy who steals the show. Rourke’s final scene with a couple of in color fish might have been the stuff of legend had anyone seen the damn thing.
The Pope of Greenwich Village – As a low-level hustler who gets way out in front of his skis and is saddled with Eric Roberts as the worst best friend in history, Rourke displays all his Brando-esque roots here. It should also be said that this is the most “New York” movie he has ever been in.
Year of the Dragon – It would have been a strange thing indeed if the combustible Michael Cimino had not worked with Rourke in a starring role. Both were so committed and go-for-broke that it seems impossible they could have missed each other. Year of the Dragon is easily the best of the three movies they made together, and definitely their most controversial. This story of a Polish cop trying to nail the kingpin of the Chinese drug underworld in New York City caught a lot of heat at the time for its on-screen treatment of Asians. While some of that criticism was warranted, it also gave the excellent Asian actor John Lone the role of his life (which includes The Last Emperor) as the head mobster. Rourke’s profane and all but unhinged performance is electric, and the final scene between he and Lone running towards each other with guns blazing is positively iconic.
9 1/2 Weeks – Oft derided as a silly softcore movie where Kate Basinger gets naked for Rourke and does strange things with food while a Joe Cocker song ensues, 9 1/2 Weeks deserves better. Rourke plays the austere businessman to Basinger’s art dealer and they become obsessed with each other (not hard to imagine). Until it all goes too far. When Basinger finally leaves Rourke and the door closes behind her, Rourke pleads for her to come back , but only after / long after after he knows she can no longer hear him. It is impossibly sad. 9 1/2 Weeks has a rep for its scenes of the two carrying on lustfully, but it’s a real movie about obsession and the lengths one will go to in effort to fulfill it.
Angel Heart – Another film whose controversy engulfed its quality, this New York to New Orleans horror thriller is my favorite Rourke movie, second only to The Wrestler. As a grimy gumshoe (and the Louisiana heat does him no favors), Rourke is sent to NOLA by Robert DeNiro to find a long-missing singer by the name of Johnny Favorite who owes him a debt that sure feels like a lot more than money. Voodoo ceremonies, pulpy twists and turns, and a salacious sex scene between Rourke and then-Cosby girl Lisa Bonet follow (and boy, was that last thing a big deal at the time), leading to a truly shocking finale where the detective learns who he was searching for is much closer to him than he thinks.
Barfly – In which Rourke channels Charles Bukowski in an affair between two drunkards, the other played by Faye Dunaway. They are an electric combo. Rourke’s writer may think he’s looking for a muse, but what he’s mostly looking for is more drinks. A habit Dunaway is only too happy to support. That sounds depressing, but a lot of Barfly is genuinely funny. The film was seen as a bit of a comeback for Dunaway, but for Rourke it would be his next to last truly great role for sometime. Which leads me to the next film on my list…
Johnny Handsome – Directed by Walter Hill, Johnny Handsome asks the question “If you change a person’s appearance, can you not only change their life, but who they are inside?” As a terribly disfigured (think Eric Stoltz in Mask) low-level criminal, Rourke goes under the scalpel of a surgeon (played by Forrest Whitaker) who is eager to see the results of his experiment. For awhile, Rourke does see possibilities for a better life—a steady job and a romance with Elizabeth McGovern give him hope. Of course, this being pulp, old ghosts return in his former partners in crime (played by a never seedier Lance Henriksen and the ultimate hellcat in the form of Ellen Barkin). The local lawman played by Morgan Freeman (what a cast!) doubts that Johnny can stay straight. He turns out to be tragically correct. As a side note, Forrest Whitaker was on set when Rourke’s Johnny sees his new face for the first time. Rourke lets a single tear run down his face, looks at Whitaker and quietly said “You guys did a good job.” Whitaker would later say it was the greatest acting moment he had been party to in his entire life.
White Sands – Rourke has a supporting role in this nifty little thriller starring Willem Dafoe. As a skeevy arms dealer, Rourke’s presence hangs over the film so much you could be forgiven for looking at the corners of your screen waiting for the man himself to appear. Sands is an underrated movie with fine turns from Samuel L. Jackson and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. It’s no classic, but it is a good night out.
The Rainmaker – Rourke was fully in his bad period and was all but unhireable when director Francis Ford Coppola threw him a lifeline in the form of a small part as a disreputable attorney in this conventional legal thriller. Based on a Grisham novel, The Rainmaker is all very meat and potatoes, but Rourke’s few scenes escalate the endeavor.
Animal Factory – In which Rourke supports Dafoe (again) in Steve Buscemi’s prison drama. A bulked-up Mickey is quite wonderful as a trans inmate giving off a burlier, Eddie-Izzard-type vibe. Fellow co-star (and former real-life jailbird) Danny Trejo found Rourke to be damn fine and attractive all made up. Hey, everybody’s got their something.
Once Upon A Time In Mexico – Another gift from an admiring director, Rourke is an assistant (of some sort) to Willem Dafoe’s Mexican drug lord (that’s right, Willem Dafoe played a Mexican—hey, so did Charlton Heston once upon a time). There really isn’t much part here for Rourke, but you can tell he played with his lines and had some fun in this overstuffed sequel to Desperado. A huge lover of chihuahuas, it was Rourke’s idea to carry one of his own dogs around in every scene and tuck the little beast behind his back whenever he was in Dafoe’s space. (Because I guess Dafoe’s character hated dogs or something? I’ve said too much on this one.)
The Pledge – Rourke has only one scene in Sean Penn’s thriller/character study of a retired cop (played by Jack Nicholson) trying to solve the case of a child killer that eluded him when he was on the job. In this single scene, Nicholson interviews Rourke (whose character’s daughter went missing years ago) and it is devastating. There’s a moment when Rourke seems to have an almost out of body experience. He says to no one in particular “where’d my baby go?” It absolutely breaks your heart.
Man On Fire – Here again Rourke plays a small role as less-than-reputable lawyer in Tony Scott’s seething revenge thriller starring Denzel Washington. He isn’t given much to do, but his mere presence speaks to his character’s moral flexibility just because he’s played by Mickey Rourke.
Domino – I’m the only one I know who loves this ridiculous action thriller starring Keira Knightley as a bad ass bounty hunter (yeah, you read that right). In his second go around with Tony Scott, Rourke has a much larger role as the bounty hunter Knightley works for. The film is basically a second rate Natural Born Killers with Scott throwing everything at the wall. Different film stocks, odd cameos (Tom Waits! Ian Ziering! Why the fuck not?) and manic editing lead to a rather odd and disjointed experience that pretty much everyone but me hated (you are all wrong by the way). I found Domino to be a blast, even if its themes on fame, the media, and god knows what else are introduced only to be given up on in short order. Honestly, I would love it for one scene alone: With Rourke, Knightly, and third member Edgar Ramirez all on the run, they hole up in a seedy motel. A frustrated Ramirez busts into Rourke’s room, finding Mickey shirtless in bed watching in-room rental porn. Ramirez walks over to the television and kicks it in, to which Rourke deadpans, “God damn it. I paid 9.99 for that movie and now I’m not going to know how it ends.” Whether you find that hilarious or not tells you whether Domino is for you (or not).
Sin City – Loaded up under what looks like 100 pounds of make up intended to make his head look like an anvil, Rourke stole this ensemble piece based upon a Frank Miller graphic novel that might not have been worth all the effort Robert Rodriguez put into had Rourke not been in the film. In a movie far more interested in style than substance, Rourke is the only character who breaks through as something resembling a sympathetic character (even if the mound of rubber placed over his face makes him unrecognizable).
The Wrestler – Before The Wrestler, I had all but given up on Rourke ever scoring another lead in a great movie. Leave it to the mercurial director Darren Aronofsky to take the risk. As a washed up wrestler who once achieved a respectable level of fame but now splits his time between low-rent nostalgia matches, sad bastard autograph signings, and dishing potato salad at a deli while living in a rundown trailer, Rourke achieves all the greatness his early years promised. With his sad eyes, weathered voice, and wrecked appearance, you could say Rourke was born to play this part (and you’d be right). More tender than tough, you find yourself desperately rooting for his character to reconnect with his daughter and romance an aging stripper played by a never-better Marisa Tomei. Can he get out of his own way? Kick some bad habits? Survive a health crisis? You’ll have to see this heartbreaker to find out. It’s a beautiful and humane film with a perfect ending. “I don’t get hurt in there” Rourke says to Tomei as he points toward the wrestling ring. When those words leave his lips, we know exactly what he means. It’s absolutely perfect.
Iron Man 2 – Leave it to Mickey Rourke to get a supposedly choice role in one of the few Marvel films that might have made shit tons of money, but no one remembers well (if at all). Still, Rourke chews scenery as Whiplash, a Russian baddie with ‘lectrified whips that er, lash from his arms. Like I said, silly, but I’m betting he got paid. So at least there’s that.
And that’s pretty much it. After a long stretch of salad days followed by many years in the desert, punctuated by a brief come up, we now find ourselves back in the sand with Mickey Rourke. Does he have one more bounce back in him? Would he make better use of it the next time? It’s hard to say, and while film lovers may mourn for what could have been, if we look at what there actually is, we will find much to admire. It’s just that he should have had Sean Penn’s career, ya know? So close…