The Wrestler (2008) is generally regarded as Mickey Rourke’s comeback film and proved that given the chance, with the right material, he could be a great actor again. This film oddly echoes another one he made 30 years prior, entitled Homeboy (1988). Interestingly, both films are underdog sports stories with the actor playing down-on-their-luck loners looking for redemption. What makes Homeboy a more interesting film than The Wrestler is that it was a personal, passion project for Rourke as opposed to Darren Aronofsky’s film, which was tailored to the actor’s talents. Homeboy was a film that originated with Rourke and one that he had nurtured and massaged for years, even writing the screenplay under the nom de plume of Sir Eddie Cook.
It’s hard to believe that by 1988, Rourke’s career was considered washed-up – at least in Hollywood where he started off strong with memorable roles in Diner (1982), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), and then scored his biggest commercial hit with 9 ½ Weeks (1986). This would mark a high point for the actor who’s reputation for being difficult was overlooked so long as his films made money, but three consecutive underperformers saw Rourke increasingly relegated to the margins. It also didn’t help that he fancied himself a boxer – an obsession that would help derail his career even further in the 1990s.
Johnny Walker (Mickey Rourke) arrives at a sea-side resort one rainy night and takes refuge in a nearby bar populated by African Americans who, by and large, look at him with contempt and disdain. It could be that he’s white and it could also be the cowboy attire that he’s wearing. He joins in on a dice game and pretty soon he’s been accepted and is dancing on the bar with a woman while chugging from a bottle of whiskey. Johnny’s handler Lou (Thomas Quinn) arrives to take him to a boxing match he’s supposed to be fighting in.
To say Johnny is an unorthodox boxer is an understatement. When he first climbs into the ring he plays mind games with his opponent by testing the ropes and staring at him silently in a way that could be mistaken for being mentally handicapped. The fight starts and Johnny spends the first round taking all kinds of punches from his opponent and getting in close. He comes out fast in the second round and proceeds to knock his opponent out. This catches promoter Wesley Pendergass’ (Christopher Walken) eye.
Wesley is a shifty promoter cum small-time crook who talks a good game but is clearly trouble. He also moonlights at a local strip club as a stand-up comic/song and dance man who tells jokes badly and sings even worse. Imagine Christopher Walken doing these two things, badly, in his very particular way and you get an idea of just how awesome it is to behold.
Johnny ends up frequenting an amusement park on the boardwalk, drawn to Ruby (Debra Feuer), a good-looking woman that runs a mini-horse ride. She is struggling to get by but dreams of fixing a broken down carousel her father left her before he died. Johnny soon gets roped into a dodgy scheme with Wesley that you know can only end badly. Added into the mix is Grazziano (Kevin Conway), a grizzled low-rent version of Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, complete with the porkpie hat. He is shadowing Wesley and Ray (Antony Alda), his junkie sidekick, just waiting for them to screw-up. The rest of the film plays out Johnny’s dilemma – does he continue participating in a sport where he’s only one or two fights from possibly dying or go in on Wesley’s ill-conceived scheme or give it all up and help Ruby realize her dreams?
Mickey Rourke is fantastic as a punch-drunk boxer living on the margins of society. It is the kind of character he excels at playing – one that has a tragic-romantic vibe to him. Like many of the characters the actor plays, Johnny is a thinker, a brooding type that could easily be mistaken for dumb, but Rourke’s performance suggests a man that observes others and takes in the entire scene before he responds or acts. We also get a brief glimpse of how he sees the world and it’s in slow motion with distorted sound as if everything is underwater.
Our first glimpse of Wesley Pendergass sees him playfully trying to comb fellow promoter Moe Fingers’ (Jon Polito) balding head before primping his own luxurious head of hair with a mischievous glint in his eyes as only Christopher Walken can do. It’s a brief teaser for the full reveal a few beats later when Wesley works the room, poking fun at Lou: “And Lou, why was God so good to me and so awful to you?” in his trademark patter that is a thing of beauty to watch. Walken’s Wesley is all smiles and flamboyant moves but in certain scenes he reveals the menace that lurks underneath the gregarious façade. He talks a big game but is strictly small-time.
Not surprisingly, the main draw of Homeboy is the scenes between Rourke and Walken. It is great to see two talented performers like them play off each other with the former portraying a man of few words and the latter playing a flashy motormouth. Each actor brings their own unique energy to their respective roles and it is a lot of fun to see them bounce their distinctive acting styles off each other.
Debra Feuer brings the tough sensibility of someone that has survived a lot of hard times but it hasn’t stopped her from trying to realize her dreams. There’s a nice scene where Ruby recounts memories of watching her father work that Feuer delivers with an air of wistful nostalgia while Rourke, the generous performer, just listens, giving his co-star the space to have her moment. She and Rourke have excellent chemistry together (they were married at the time) as evident in the scenes they share, bringing out the vulnerability in their respective characters.
Lou, as played by Thomas Quinn, is a burnt-out, disheveled variation of Burt Young’s trainer in Rocky (1976). He perfectly encapsulates the seedy charm of this world, populated by broken down boxers and small-time criminals. Over the course of the film, he reveals that Lou really does care about Johnny’s well-being, to the point that he admits his own shortcomings as a trainer to the fighter. This is a world that Rourke knows well and it is evident in the details, from the bustling gym where you can almost smell the sweat, to the seaside carnival where you can almost feel the cool wind coming off the ocean.
Mickey Rourke came up with the idea for Homeboy while he was a struggling actor. When he was younger, he attempted a career as an amateur boxer but after a few fights, a severe concussion ended that aspiration. Rourke never forgot and wanted to depict his boxing experiences on film. He based the character of Johnny Walker on someone he knew as a child, and a boxer who frequented the same gym in Miami as he did: “He had all the tools. He just had a little trouble upstairs … There was no guidance in his life. There was no love. And if you don’t have a certain amount of love, you’re going to turn out like a piece of shit.” Rourke hero worshipped the boxer but was also intimidated by him: “There was some dark fucking thing when I looked at him. When I looked at him, I was looking at myself.”
While working on Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), Rourke met and became friends with Christopher Walken. Over dinner one night Walken told Rourke about his theory on how the dinosaurs died out. Rourke was intrigued by Walken’s theory and told him about a film he wanted to make some day about a boxer. Rourke told Walken that he would play the fighter’s manager. Rourke remembered, “I thought, ‘Wow, here I’m having this one chance to have dinner with one of my favorite actors in the world, and he’s talking about dinosaurs in outer space.” Rourke initially wrote what would become Homeboy on coffee-shop napkins as far back as 1984. In an interview from 1985, he described the film as being “about a guy who never was a champion, he’s a guy who was pretty much the reason I stopped boxing.”
When it came time to make Homeboy, Rourke was only interested in casting friends and childhood buddies in supporting roles as opposed to well-known actors. He also cast his then-wife Debra Feuer opposite him and picked Angel Heart’s cinematographer Michael Seresin to direct his first and to date only film.
While Homeboy was released in Europe, it failed to find a theatrical debut in North America when Rourke had it blocked because of a lawsuit he filed against the film’s producer Elliott Kastner for failing to pay him and denying approval over final editing and music. Rourke said, “I felt violated. I learned a great lesson—never trust someone on a handshake. People’s words mean nothing in this business.”
Homeboy is a fascinating study of a self-destructive man. Johnny could be a half-decent fighter if he didn’t drink so much and had enough in the tank to finish off his opponents. Rourke’s actual boxing skills certainly give the fight scenes an authenticity. This is a film about making choices and being smart enough to make the right ones. This sometimes involves learning from many bad ones and this doesn’t always happen. Over the course of the film Johnny has to figure out what’s important to him and make some serious choices that will affect his life forever. Homeboy is no Raging Bull (1980) and it doesn’t aspire to be like that film. It’s an intimate slice-of-life story about people just trying to get by and finding compelling drama in their day-to-day struggles.
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Goldstein, Patrick. “The Last Anti-Hero?” Los Angeles Times. February 24, 1991.
“Rourke in Dispute Over Homeboy.” Los Angeles Times. May 27, 1989.
Smith, Gavin. “Out There on a Visit.” Film Comment. July/August 1992.
Walken, Christopher. “Mickey Rourke.” Interview. January 16, 2009.