Robin Ramzinski, better known by his ring name Randy "The Ram" Robinson, is a professional wrestler who became a celebrity in the 1980s. Now past his prime, Randy wrestles on weekends for independent promotions in New Jersey while working part-time at a supermarket under Wayne, a demeaning manager who mocks Randy's wrestling background. A regular at a strip club, Randy befriends a stripper, Cassidy, who, like Randy, is too old for her job. After winning a local match, Randy agrees to a proposed 20th-anniversary rematch with his most notable opponent, "The Ayatollah", which could bring him back to stardom.
Randy intensifies his training, which includes steroid injections. After wrestling in a hardcore match, Randy suffers a heart attack backstage and undergoes coronary artery bypass surgery. His doctor tells him that his heart can no longer handle the stress of wrestling. As a result, Randy decides to retire and begins working a full-time shift at the supermarket's deli counter.
At Cassidy's suggestion, Randy visits his estranged daughter Stephanie, whom he had abandoned when she was a child, but she rebuffs him and is living her own life. While helping Randy buy a gift for Stephanie, Cassidy reveals that she has a son. Randy makes romantic advances toward her, which she rejects on the grounds of her job. Later, Randy gives the gift to his daughter and apologizes for abandoning her. The two bond over a visit to a beachfront boardwalk, where he took her as a child, and agree to meet for dinner on the coming Saturday. Randy goes to Cassidy's strip club to thank her, but she once more rejects him, resulting in a heated exchange. Upset, Randy goes to see a wrestling match and finds solace in his wrestling friends. While at a bar with them, he gets drunk, snorts cocaine and has sex with a woman in the women's restroom. He sleeps the entire next day and misses his dinner with Stephanie. He goes to her house to apologize, but she angrily tells him she never wants to see him again.
At the deli counter, a patron recognizes Randy as the wrestler, though he denies it. The customer persists, which agitates Randy, who then cuts his hand on the deli's slicer and goes into a rampage in the store, hurling abuse at Wayne and the customers. Spurred by the fan's recognition of him and with nothing left, Randy decides to return to wrestling and reschedules the rematch with The Ayatollah. He reconciles with Cassidy, though she begs him not to wrestle because of his heart condition. However, Randy explains to her that he belongs in the ring with the fans who, unlike the rest of society, love him.
As he wrestles, Randy begins to feel chest pain and becomes unsteady. The Ayatollah notices this and urges him to initiate the pin. Randy refuses, however, and climbs the top rope for his signature finishing move, a diving headbutt called the Ram Jam. He looks over and sees Cassidy has left. In tears, he salutes the crowd and leaps from the ropes.Mickey Rourke as Robin Ramzinski / Randy "The Ram" RobinsonMarisa Tomei as Pam / CassidyEvan Rachel Wood as Stephanie RamzinskiMark Margolis as LennyTodd Barry as WayneJudah Friedlander as ScottErnest Miller as Bob / "The Ayatollah"Ajay Naidu as MedicWass Stevens as NickJohn D'Leo as AdamGregg Bello as Larry
Professional wrestlers who appeared in the film include: Andrew Anderson, Robbie E, Necro Butcher, Nick Berk, The Blue Meanie, Sabian, Nate Hatred, Ron Killings, L.A. Smooth, Jay Lethal, Jim Powers, Claudio Castagnoli, Larry Sweeney, Romeo Roselli, John Zandig, Chuck Taylor, Nigel McGuinness, DJ Hyde, Havoc (Kit Cope), Pappadon, and Jay Santana.
The Wrestler was written by Robert D. Siegel, a former writer for The Onion, and entered development at director Darren Aronofsky's Protozoa Pictures. Nicolas Cage entered negotiations in October 2007 to star as Randy. The following month Cage left the project, and Mickey Rourke replaced him in the lead role. According to Aronofsky, Cage pulled out of the movie because Aronofsky wanted Rourke as the lead character. Aronofsky stated that Cage was "a complete gentleman, and he understood that my heart was with Mickey and he stepped aside. I have so much respect for Nic Cage as an actor and I think it really could have worked with Nic but, you know, Nic was incredibly supportive of Mickey and he is old friends with Mickey and really wanted to help with this opportunity, so he pulled himself out of the race."
In a 2009 interview with Access Hollywood, Cage denied this allegation, stating that "I wasn't quote 'dropped' from the movie. I resigned from the movie because I didn't think I had enough time to achieve the look of the wrestler who was on steroids, which I would never do." When first approached for the lead role, Rourke was initially reluctant, stating that "I didn't really care for the script, but I wanted to work with Darren and I kind of thought that whoever wrote the script hadn't spent as much time as I had around these kind of people and he wouldn't have spoken the way the dude was speaking. And, so Darren let me rewrite all my parts and he put the periods in and crossed the T's. So once we made that change I was okay with it."
Wrestling legend Hulk Hogan claimed in 2012 on The Howard Stern Show that he was also offered the role of Randy "The Ram" Robinson. Hogan claims he turned down the role because he felt he wasn't the right man to portray the character. Aronofsky disputed Hogan's claims, stating on his personal Twitter page that, "...the role of the Wrestler was always (Rourke's) it was never Hulk Hogan's as he claims on (Howard Stern.)"
The roughly 40-day shoot began in January 2008, with filming taking place throughout New Jersey in Elizabeth, Hasbrouck Heights, Garfield, Asbury Park, Linden, Rahway, Roselle Park, Dover, a supermarket in Bayonne where Rourke served and improvised with real customers, and in New York. Scenes were also shot at The Arena in Philadelphia.
Afa Anoa'i, a former professional wrestler, was hired to train Rourke for his role. Anoa'i brought his two main trainers, Jon Trosky and Tom Farra, to work with Rourke for eight weeks. Both trainers also have parts in the film.
One scene features a fictional Nintendo Entertainment System video game called Wrestle Jam '88. It starred the characters of Robinson and The Ayatollah. Aronofsky requested a fully functioning game for the actors to play. Programmer Randall Furino and the film's title designer Kristyn Hume created a playable demo with a working interface and AI routines that also featured 1980s era-appropriate graphics and music.
To add more realism, the locker room scenes were improvised for Rourke and others to look as if they were actually socializing. Some of the deli scenes were improvised because Aronofsky was filming Rourke actually working there.
Clint Mansell, the composer for Aronofsky's previous films, π, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, reprised his role as composer for The Wrestler. Slash played the guitars on the score. A new Bruce Springsteen song, also titled "The Wrestler", plays over the film's closing credits. Springsteen wrote the song while on tour in Europe after receiving a letter and a copy of the script from Rourke.
The Guns N' Roses song "Sweet Child o' Mine" is played during Randy's ring entrance at the end of the film. In his Golden Globe acceptance speech, Rourke mentioned that Axl Rose donated the song for free due to the film's modest budget, and the film's closing credits thank Rose for this. Rourke had used the same song as his intro music during his stint as a boxer in the early 1990s. Randy even mocks one of Axl Rose's biggest rivals in the popular music scene of the early 1990s: Kurt Cobain.
Also featured in the film are two Ratt songs ("Round and Round" and "I'm Insane"), the Quiet Riot song "Metal Health" (which is Randy's entrance song except for the last match), the FireHouse song "Don't Walk Away", the Slaughter song "Dangerous", the Scorpions song "Animal Magnetism", "Balls to the Wall" by Accept, "Soundtrack to a War" by Rhino Bucket and the Cinderella song "Don't Know What You Got (Till It's Gone)". The two Ratt tunes are actually recordings by Rat Attack, a project featuring Ratt lead singer Stephen Pearcy and guitarists George Lynch (Dokken) and Tracii Guns (L.A. Guns). The Madonna song "Jump" is played in the bar scene. The Birdman and Lil Wayne song "Stuntin' Like My Daddy" can be heard in the strip club. Also in the film is a song called "Let Your Freak Out" by independent Toronto singer-songwriter Deesha which can be heard during the strip club scene where Marisa Tomei's character is having an emotional conversation with Mickey Rourke's character.
In the Toronto International Film Festival interview conducted by James Rocchi, Aronofsky credited the 1957 Charles Mingus song "The Clown", an instrumental piece with a poem read over the music about a clown who accidentally discovers the bloodlust of the crowds and eventually kills himself in performance, as a major source of inspiration for the movie. Aronofsky also said the brief reprise of Senator and Presidential-candidate John McCain's "Bomb bomb Iran" to the tune of The Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann" in the movie evolved as improvisation on the set. The Ayatollah wrestling character's persona had developed more than 20 years before but, in part through this musical moment and its connection with the character, came to still feel appropriate to Aronofsky in 2008.
WWE helped promote it through an on-screen angle (a fictional storyline used in wrestling). This involved the heel Chris Jericho criticizing legendary retired wrestlers such as Ric Flair, who he felt were embarrassing themselves, as well as Mickey Rourke for his portrayal in The Wrestler. At the 15th Screen Actors Guild Awards, Rourke announced he would be competing at WrestleMania XXV, specifically targeting Jericho. The announcement led to a confrontation between the two on Larry King Live, which showed signs of second thoughts from Rourke. On January 28, it was announced through Rourke's spokesperson that the actor would not compete at the event, and he was soon after announced instead as a guest.
Rourke was also invited to the 2009 WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony the night before WrestleMania. The angle culminated the following night where Jericho faced Ricky Steamboat, Roddy Piper, and Jimmy Snuka in a handicap match. After his victory, Jericho dismantled Flair and challenged Rourke, who finally entered the ring and punched him out. Flair then congratulated Rourke.
The Wrestler has received much critical acclaim. Rotten Tomatoes reported that 98% of critics gave the film positive write-ups based upon a sample of 222, and gave it a Golden Tomato for best drama of 2008. The critical consensus states that "Mickey Rourke gives a performance for the ages in The Wrestler, a richly affecting, heart-wrenching yet ultimately rewarding drama." At Metacritic, which assigns a rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film has received an average score of 81, based on 36 reviews, signifying "universal acclaim". Alonso Duralde, of MSNBC, said, "Rourke's work transcends mere stunt-casting; his performance is a howl of pain that seems to come from a very real place."
Todd McCarthy, of Variety, said, "Rourke creates a galvanizing, humorous, deeply moving portrait that instantly takes its place among the great, iconic screen performances." Ben Mankiewicz, from At the Movies, said, "To put it simply, this is the best film I've seen this year." Le Monde praised the film for melding European film style with an American plot, and stated that "Mickey Rourke's performance in 'The Wrestler' is a continuous celebration of the burdens and splendors of the profession of performance." (One other French film critic, Philippe Azoury, praised its portrayal of "the American heartland" as what he viewed as a bleak wasteland.) Although The Wrestler was not technically in Roger Ebert's "Best Films" list, he includes a note at the bottom of his review: "'The Wrestler' is one of the year's best films. It wasn't on my 'best films' list for complicated and boring reasons."
Prominent wrestling figures have commented on the movie. Aronofsky remarked during an NPR interview on WWE chairman Vince McMahon's feelings on The Wrestler:
Vince McMahon saw the film and he called both me and Mickey (Rourke) and he was really, really touched by it. It happened a week ago. We were very nervous wondering what he would think, but he really, really felt the film was special. Having his support meant a lot to us, especially Mickey.
WWE Hall of Famer Bret "The Hitman" Hart, who was a multi-time world champion in both WWE and WCW, enjoyed The Wrestler and applauded Rourke's "clairvoyant" performance, but called the film a "dark misinterpretation" of the business. He asserted: "Randy "The Ram" Robinson was a main-eventer who sold out Madison Square Garden. So was I... Although the film speaks superbly to the speed bumps all pro wrestlers navigate, I’m happy to report most of us don’t swerve off the road quite so severely." WWE play-by-play commentator Jim Ross called it a "really strong, dramatic film that depicts how people who are obsessed with their own lives and their careers can self-destruct".
Former WWE and TNA world heavyweight champion Mick Foley enjoyed the film, saying: "Within five [minutes], I had completely forgotten I was looking at Mickey Rourke. That guy on the screen simply was Randy 'the Ram' Robinson." WWE Hall of Famer "Rowdy" Roddy Piper was said to have been highly emotional after watching a screening of the film. Aronofsky said of Piper: "He loved it. He broke down and cried in Mickey's arms, so he was psyched that this story was finally told." Insights on the film from Roddy Piper and other former pro wrestlers can be seen in Fox Searchlight Pictures's "Wrestler Round Table", which was included on the Blu-ray release of the film.
Pro wrestling manager and promoter Jim Cornette criticized the film for being an unrelentingly depressing view of the professional wrestling world, saying it was neither realistic nor accurate of the profession for most wrestlers involved in it.
The film appeared on many critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2008.
In March 2009, Javad Shamaqdari, cultural adviser to the-then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, demanded an apology from a delegation of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences actors and producers visiting Iran for what he characterized as negative and unfair portrayals of the Islamic republic in The Wrestler and other Hollywood films.
The film won the Golden Lion at the 65th Venice International Film Festival, and was nominated for two Academy Awards. It was nominated for three Golden Globe Awards, winning two.