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The Viking Hall at Ritner and Swanson streets has been lots of things since becoming the New Alhambra in 1992: a bingo parlor, a Mummers practice space, a boxing palace and home to Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW) after Extreme Championship Wrestling went into bankruptcy. Within the next few weeks, New York Dolls, Philly rockabilly cats and an alternative beauty pageant will hit its canvas. And though CZW's Cage of Death has witnessed guys like "Wacks" and "NecroButcher" wield barbed-wire spools and staple guns against each other, it hadn't seen Mickey Rourke in sparkly tights and a long blond wig. No. It had not.
After filming scenes in Hasbrouck Heights with New Jersey's WXW Promotions, director Darren Aronofsky, his producing partner Scott Franklin and Rourke (replacing Nicolas Cage, who replaced Rourke, who originally declined the role) hit the 'Hambra last week to film The Wrestler, billed as pretty much the first-ever real wrestling film. That is, if you don't count The One and Only — where Henry Winkler plays a Gorgeous George-like mess — as a wrestling movie. And if you discount Aronofsky's predilection for unconventional reality as evidenced in the manic Dadaism of films Pi and The Fountain.
But this is the world of independent wrestling they'll capture — men like Rourke's character, Randy "The Ram" Robinson; fictional, once-epic soldiers in WWE's pro-wrestling heights of the 1980s now left to drive from town to town for cheap pickup bouts and the rigorous dangers of leagues like CZW. Panes of glass, cactuses, ladders, forks — all are part of John Zandig's Philly-based CZW. If they're part of the usual bouts, they'll be part of Aronofsky's film. And if they're part of Aronofsky's film, Zandig's hope is that The Wrestler, along with CZW's first worldwide distribution deal for its DVDs (through Locomotive Vision) will take the ultra-violent sport to the next level.
"We'd been working on a film on independent wrestling for four years," says Franklin, staring into a portable monitor, talking about the groundwork laid with Aronofsky's Protozoa company. "Once we got to the 'hardcore,' everyone told us we had to hit CZW." Franklin, Aronofsky and Rourke visited CZW's Cage of Death IX in December and committed to the venue. Franklin's conscious that I know the film's script: what unfolds in each scene, the flashbacks and the stunt stuff. But I'm not here to dispense spoilers. Never break kayfabe. That's the wrestler's code.
"As a kid I loved wrestling — such a dramatic world — but was always afraid of guys like Afa the [Wild] Samoan," says Aronofsky. Aronofsky doesn't look scared of Afa now — the legendary wrestling elder is sitting in the corner of New Alhambra, watching his trainee Rourke getting sideburns glued to his face. "But I knew that no one had ever captured what to me was this fascinating world. Boxing movies — there's a whole genre — but nothing true-to-life where wrestling's concerned. Or the hard lives some of these guys have led."
The bell rings. A dolly rises. The crew is moving the ladder around the canvas. "And when you see Mickey — yeah, he's 'The Ram,'" says Aronofsky. "And [he's] very much like his character."
I don't have far to go to see Rourke. He's next to me.
Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" plays behind him while Rourke's getting his makeup finished. The next night, while they film throughout a real CZW match, Rourke's "Ram" gets introduced by "Sweet Child O' Mine."
Aronofsky goes through the scene's choreography — "The Ram" vs. Dylan Summers, a balding, shaggy-haired guy, called "Necro Butcher," with a bloody five-dollar bill stapled to his head, who'll come at the Ram with a patented punch and a weed whacker. "Rourke's character is on a downhill slope doing smaller arenas and taking chances he shouldn't for low paydays — just like I'm doing," laughs Summers. "Guess I'm typecast."
Rourke knows the dangers of downhill slopes and typecasting. He's boxed and been in films classic and not so. Yet at 51, he's got recent film hits (Sin City) under his championship belt and is sitting here with his pectoral muscles flexed and a three-pack after having busted his ass in Miami with Afa. "Between you and me, I'm more athletically inclined than my stunt guy. But he knows how to fall. When I fall it's like a ton of bricks. I got more injured during this than I have in 11 years of fucking boxing," he laughs. Along with collaborating with his trainers, he's collaborated, too, with Aronofsky on the script.
Rourke understands all sides of the downslide. "The tragedy of this film, this guy, is that he's still trying, thinks he has one more shot left. I really didn't know if I wanted to go there." But he did.
And CZW owner Zandig thinks Mickey's doing a great job. Ruddy and tanned like Rourke only with a shaved head and a rounder physique, the 37-year-old Zandig takes off his CZW black hoodie and skull cap to reveal the scars he got before he retired two years ago.
"That this film's capturing the realism of independent wrestling — all of it, the mom 'n' pop aspect, the ultra-violent side — means a lot," says Zandig. Not just because the now-decade-old CZW has had lots of its advances in the Japanese and Italian television markets squelched by Vince McMahon's WWE wrestling empire. ("We're a pea compared to him, but he wants it all," says Zandig.) But also because with the DVDs of the raw-knuckle competitions finally to be available all over the world, CZW will get its day in the sun. "It's like when you get knocked out, but you're not finished off," says Zandig with a smile as Necro Butcher drags "The Ram" up the ladder for a body slam onto a table filled with barbed war.
"You're so dead," the crowd screams.