[6 May 2009]
Now that the slightly patronizing lead-up to Mickey Rourke’s Oscar night is over and done with (and with the far more exciting prospect of Rourke appearing at this year’s Wrestlemania on the horizon), perhaps it’s time to take a real look at Rourke’s legacy, outside of the glare of that silly gold statue that has always meant more to Hollywood publicists than to real movie fans.
A quick glance at Rourke’s filmography reveals plenty in his past that’s either underrated or neglected, like Alan Parker’s intense Angel Heart (1987) or Walter Hill’s enjoyable crime fairy tale Johnny Handsome (1989)—a film that’s prosthetically prophetic in giving Rourke a bloated, lump-ridden face that sadly resembles the one he would later take on in real life. But sandwiched between those relatively easy-to-appreciate titles, not to mention others like Rumble Fish (1983) and Barfly (1987), is the overwhelmingly neglected and sadly forgotten Homeboy from 1988, directed by one-timer (but successful cinematographer) Michael Seresin and written by Rourke himself.
A glum and downbeat boxing film, Homeboy not only anticipates many of the key concerns of the highly-celebrated The Wrestler, but also, by now-obvious extension, the real life trajectory of Rourke himself. But the film fell into the ‘too depressing’ pit on its release, and the presence of standard genre cliches saw it treated dismissively by those who didn’t look close enough to see those same cliches being quietly, but firmly, derailed. Despite the presence of actors like Christopher Walken and Jon Polito, a delicate score by Eric Clapton, and even a fawning reference in Bob Dylan’s Chronicles (“The movie traveled to the moon every time [Rourke] came onto the screen. Nobody could hold a candle to him.”), it is rarely mentioned today at all.
But with Darren Aronofsky not only bringing a similarly gnarled and battered Rourke to considerable acclaim in The Wrestler, but also having helped propel the whole ‘depressing chic’ movement with his angst-fest Requiem for a Dream in 2000, surely we’re in a good position to re-evaluate the film’s merits and appreciate a battered and brain-damaged Rourke staggering through the ring for some futile goal that even he probably realizes doesn’t really exist?
But perhaps not. Too depressing in 1988, Homeboy‘s aura of sorrow now seems too delicate, too nuanced and poetic, next to the sensationalized sledgehammer misery pioneered by today’s hip angst-peddlers like Aronofsky, Todd Solondz, Larry Clark, and Christopher Nolan.
In many ways, The Wrestler is a standard ‘rise, fall, rise again’ movie, just missing the first two acts. Homeboy, on the other hand, doesn’t really have much of a rise or a fall; Rourke’s small-time boxer Johnny Walker and Christopher Walken’s two-bit hood Wesley have, like the old blues lyric, been down so long they don’t know what up is like. They drift through the film in a kind of perpetual haze, following the paths they’ve found themselves in, but barely able to see more than a day or two ahead and with only the vaguest ideas of what they might achieve.
Johnny drifts into town, dopey and punchy. He’s determined and cocky in the ring, but we’re not presented with reasons to find this especially endearing: the bouts are guileless brawls, and he’s agressive, surly, and not above taking a cheap shot. He comes alive for a moment in the ring, looking like a primal caveman in long black-and-white leopard-print trunks, but subjective POV shots show that the whole experience is really just a blurred haze to him. The slow-motion sound and blurred vision effect might come across as an overly simplistic gimmick if it didn’t also seem to represent Johnny’s natural state outside of the ring. We never get a glimpse of Johnny’s POV when he’s not in a fight, but it’s impossible not to wonder just how much of what’s going on around him Johnny is actually capable of taking in.
Not surprisingly, he’s an easy mark for Wesley, a hood with a smooth front that only the most naive rube wouldn’t see through, and whose only other regular company is another criminal who’s already sold him out to the cops. Wesley immediately claims ownership of Johnny, whose quiet and befuddled obedience make him a perfect audience for stale patter and small-time philosophising. Their listless states and basic need for some kind of human connection are all that make them kindred spirits when, in better times, they’d most likely never even exchange a glance.
Though carefully paced, Homeboy creates the illusion that it’s simply drifting along with its characters. The lack of narrative ups and downs can be a frustrating experience, especially when we’re now used to sensationalised depictions of depression with a new low-point thrown at us every five minutes. Seresin uses simple techniques like diminishing his actors’ on-screen status by surrounding them with the sights and sounds of the dull monotony of training in the background of the large, colorless gyms. Johnny and Wesley come across as just another couple of washed-up guys you’d see in a corner while the rest of the world carries on with its regular business; nobody you’d spare a second thought for, except maybe to cross to the other side of the street. Even the fight scenes play in front of a rowdy but faceless and distant crowd. There’s no sense of any real connection with the fighters; ultimately, the crowd couldn’t care less what happens.
Homeboy is saved from being a total downer when Johnny stumbles across Ruby, the owner and operator of a carousel and pony ride sideshow (played by Rourke’s then-wife Debra Feuer, who might be best remembered by fans of William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. from 1985—it’s a shame she didn’t work more). They form a connection that the film treats delicately and seriously, even though, like Johnny and Wesley, it’s a relationship formed more from the basic need to find solace with a fellow broken-down soul than from any moment of real blissful connection.
It’s a sign of the film’s maturity that it doesn’t set up this small point of happiness only to tear it down or point out how flimsy it is. When Rourke has a moment of happiness in The Wrestler, we know that it’s only so Aronofsky can bring it crashing down a few scenes later. Homeboy isn’t afraid to allow its two leads to find some kind of personal happiness with each other, minor though it might be, that doesn’t need to be sullied or trashed in the overall bleakness of the film.
Hideously misrepresented by a hundred boxing-film cliches in insensitive two-sentence synopses, Homeboy in fact brings out the usual boxing-film tropes only to show them flatly fizzle out. None of the characters seem to be able to latch on to a definitive climactic moment. Johnny and Ruby’s first meeting involves him protecting her from a bunch of young toughs, but really it’s nothing more than telling a few kids to buzz off (a debt Ruby dismissively settles with a free soda). Other characters note that Johnny has a perfect name for a successful fighter, but he never gets a chance to make anything of that theory, nor does being the highly-sought-after white fighter that the boxing-hall managers prattle about do him any good. When Johnny’s offered a shot at a big-time bout with a big-time paycheck, he takes it with the vague intention of saving Ruby’s business, but really it’s just one more paycheck. Besides, it’s well understood by everyone else that he’s just fodder for his high-profile opponent. Even the classic trope of the training montage is played against the genre staples: the pace is slow, and Clapton’s score seems lost in nostalgic reverie rather than spitting out blaring power-chords.
By now we’ve found out that Johnny’s skull is fractured and will most likely collapse with just a few more hits (a fact passed on to Wesley but withheld from Johnny), and we’re given tense shots of training weights tied to his head (which he struggles with) and, oddly horrific, a towel being squeezed tightly around his eggshell skull. The montage ends with him running among the seagulls by the beach, flapping his arms with an awkward, addled stride. Where Rocky‘s training montage spits out a tough and determined contender, Homeyboy‘s montage ends with a bittersweet shot of a boxer who has barely progressed beyond a childhood state, is perhaps severely brain-damaged, and who seems to have found a momentary contentment that we know can’t last.
In a heartbreaking scene, Johnny seems to pierce the haze around him, making direct eye contact with another character for one of the few times in the film, just long enough to ask his trainer in the lead-up to the final fight:
Hey, Bill, thanks man, you know I sure wish I woulda run into you a long time ago, maybe things coulda worked out. You coulda made me good, man. Hey Bill, Bill, hey Bill, man, you think I coulda been good?
But there’s no pre-match pep-talk to be had. His trainer can’t even meet his gaze to answer the question, and Johnny lowers his head once more.
The basic antithesis of the Rocky mentality (noble and enjoyable though it is) runs through the film. Rocky won’t stay down, but Homeboy portrays a world where getting up might eventually stop being an option:
Ruby: [My Grandpa] was out riding on his horse one day, trying to cross the train tracks that ran through our property. The train was coming, the horse spooked, he was thrown and the train ran him over. Some batty old neighbour lady said he just sat there on the tracks, let the train hit him. He didn’t even try to get up.
Johnny: Well, maybe he didn’t want to get up.
When the final fight comes and Johnny’s opponent notes that “he don’t go down,” we know it’s a doomed and confused bid for some barely understood goal, not some Rocky-style character-builder. When the final hammer blows come, Clapton’s serene score erupting into shrill blasts as Johnny’s fractured skull takes a beating, all we know is that Johnny now can’t get up whether he wants to or not.
Childlike, sitting cross-legged in the ring with a vacant grin on his bloody face, Clapton’s fiery electric version of “Dixie” blaring on the soundtrack, Johnny’s collapse is intercut with Wesley being shot after the big robbery he’d spent the film planning—a plan just as short-sighted as Johnny’s: grab the loot and run. Our final glimpse of him, waves lapping over him as he lies dead on the shore, and intercut with the rain running over Johnny’s seemingly lifeless face, is basic but effective symbolism: washed up.
And where The Wrestler ends with a bunch of fake-out questions that don’t really require answers, Homeboy weaves one last confident image with its careful mix of utter hopelessness and minor joys. It’s an uneasy romanticism as Ruby’s carousel, a symbol of the childhood neither of them quite moved beyond, spins in the night, and a denim-clad cowboy—perhaps Johnny, perhaps not—stands dazzled by the sight for a moment, then strolls on up towards the lights. It’s uniquely romantic and unnerving: a grimy street version of “The Monkey’s Paw”. After all, if it is Johnny, then what’s left of him?
Homeboy doesn’t deserve to be remembered just for its similarities with the currently revered The Wrestler. Like most of Rourke’s output from the time, his presence is electrifying as he captures the basic contradictions in a man who is part brain-damaged thug and part child lost in a cruel haze. As Bob Dylan wrote, “Just seeing [Rourke] act gave me the inspiration to cut the last two songs for this album [Oh Mercy].”
Just as importantly, it showcases Rourke as a highly successful screenwriter: Homeboy is amazingly free of dramatic excess and sensationalism, and Rourke wisely gives his actors dialogue for us to interpret rather than speeches for us to merely listen to. In fact, Rourke barely gives himself two sentences in a row, leaving the bulk of the film to rest entirely on his extraordinary physical ability.
Like John Huston’s great Fat City (1972), Homeboy is one of the few boxing films to keep us stuck in the small-time world of small-time fighters: a world where fighters are washed up before they’ve even had a shot, and where there aren’t even past glories to relive. Film fans after a more nuanced view of boxing might find Homeboy worth more than a passing look. Similarly, a hip generation that has grown up thinking that Larry Clark-style doom and despair is cutting edge might want to take a look at a film where being depressing was simply a result of being honest with its subject rather than a marketing-gimmick. Homeboy reminds us that creating a small and shaky moment of happiness in that bleak terrain is much more difficult than creating a world full of nothing but sorrow.