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Niko Tavernise
Mickey Rourke makes his comeback in "The Wrestler."

THE WRESTLER — ★★★★ — Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood; rated R (violence, profanity, drugs, gore, nudity, sex, vulgarity, slurs); Broadway Centre

There are a lot of reasons why "The Wrestler" shouldn't work at all.

For one thing, there's its subject matter — professional wrestling, which really doesn't seem like something that would lead to such an involving character drama.

Then there's the film's star, Mickey Rourke, who hasn't exactly set the world on fire with his big-screen performances of late. (His mostly unrecognizable turn in "Frank Miller's Sin City" is the one possible exception there.)

But here, he gives the kind of performance that reminds us why he was so well-regarded in the early stages of his career — back when he was making movies such as "Diner" (1982) and "The Pope of Greenwich Village" (1984), rather than his later turns in exploitative trash such as "Wild Orchid" (1989), "Spun" (2002) and "Domino" (2005).

Rourke plays the title character, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a once-famous professional grappler whose best days are clearly behind him.

What's worse, years of in-ring action and constant touring across the country has taken a huge toll on both his body and his personal life. Randy finds himself estranged from his college-age daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who wants nothing to do with him.

And the only other woman — and nearly constant presence — in his life is Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper who's more than happy to give Randy a lap dance or two. But this struggling single mom isn't sure she wants to have anything resembling a relationship with this broken-down hulk of a man.

Also, Randy's doctors have urged him to retire for the sake of his health — though this may be the only "profession" that he's really good at.

If you didn't know the film was directed by Darren Aronofsky, you'd have trouble recognizing this as his work. (The gritty style bears little resemblance to his visually arresting pieces "Pi" and "The Fountain.")

And both he and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel clearly did their homework. The wrestling scenes are vivid and realistic, as is the dialogue.

Of course, credit must go to the three main actors as well. This is Rourke's big comeback role, and he definitely deserves the Academy Award nomination he received. (Especially when you consider the physical toll that the wrestling scenes probably took on the 50-something actor's body.)

But fellow Oscar nominee Tomei and Wood are very good as well. Both are sympathetic and help keep both the main character and the film grounded in reality.

"The Wrestler" is rated R and features scenes of violent wrestling action (brawling, including barbed-wire combat and brutal chair beatings), strong sexual language (profanity, vulgar slang and other suggestive talk), drug content and references (narcotics, painkillers, steroids and hypodermic needle use), some graphic gore and blood, male and full female nudity, simulated sex and other sexual contact, lewd dancing, and derogatory language and slurs (some based on sexual preference). Running time: 115 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com