Mickey Rourke is the greatest actor in the history of cinema. Yes, I think he is better – certainly as good – as Brando and Nicholson. He is able to go places, express ideas and create indelible characters with a rare artistry and unfathomable talent. Unfortunately, he has never appeared in a great film; most of the films, even the good ones, are at least a little flawed.
A Rourke revival is going on highlighted by his Oscar nominated turn last year in the Wrestler. This summer, he matched thespian chops with Robert Downey in Iron Man 2. A solid action/super hero film, their scenes together—the ones when they are not using their powers fighting—where they exchange dialog are compelling. In The Expendables, a similar occurrence takes place. Rourke exhibits an amazing piece of acting in the middle of this low brow Action Movie. Rourke gives both these entertainments credibility, elevating them towards true art. He not only ensures that in 100 years when acting students study great actors, these films will be watched, but also creates a believable emotional core that validates the story.
As a director, with the last Rocky film, Rambo IV, and now the Expendables, Stallone has gotten very interesting. There is more substance to these films than the reviews and Stallone’s reputation might indicate.
All three of these films are compelling and well paced. They have edge of your eats moments, they engage the viewer. Stallone knows what his audiences want, he understands his persona and how to use that persona to side step his celebrity and actually further the story he is trying to tell. . For all of Stallone’s faults, he knows and respects his audience. These are likeable films, solid B entertainments
He also respects the acting talent, which is why I believe he cast Mickey Rourke. They worked together before, in the remake of Get Carter, a film I haven’t seen but I remember reading that Rourke took the job for scale because he was dead broke and Stallone increased the salary by several grand from his own respect, a sign of respect to the actor’s actor.
Spoiler Alert: Mickey Rourke is Luke Skywalker’s Father.
In the film, these mercenaries led by Stallone go to an island nation in Latin America to overthrow a dictator and assassinate an Ex-CIA turned drug kingpin, Eric Roberts (welcome back!). There’s a woman involved, with whom Stallone has a romantic platonic relationship, much like Randolph Scott or John Wayne. He has to go back not for the mission, but to save the girl. It’s not easy, and requires a lot of pyrotechnics and the sacrifice of dozens of stunt men extras.
Yet, Stallone makes us buy a rehash of rehashed Dirty Dozen remakes. He is a very savvy film maker. A lot has been made of the cameos of Bruce Willis and the Governator. It sounds like a gimmick, which it is, but what a clever, effective gimmick. Basically, those two with Rocky/Rambo have a winking at the audience scene where Willis hires Stallones, explaining the premises of the film’s plot. Arnold, the rival mercenary, turns down the job. Willis brings in the McGuffin.
I usually hate this kind of stuff, but the reason it works here is that Stallone knows that he is too much of a celebrity, a known persona to easily convince audiences that he is a character in a story, where the action is real and the stakes are high. By bringing in these other two, as well known as he and for similar reason – 80s action flicks – the scene deflates the preconceptions we possess about Stallone. It is counterintuitive, and it worked! Instead of bringing you out of the movie, as cameos unfortunately often do – these appearances draw you into the movie. It’s a rare instance where the cameos encourage your dispensing with disbelief.
Then there’s Rourke. Rourke is a retired “Expendable,” the name of these hardcore, gruff but loveable mercenaries. A loner, he is a tattoo artist and painter. He doesn’t go on missions, but he advises and gives the Expendables their tattoos, a kind of Biker Falstaff. Rourke himself is decked out here with lots of ink, including a kind of winged angle above his waist for which he wears hip huggers. He’s wonderfully outlandish. His face is broken, he looks greasy and grizzled – I wish some director would revive his Barfly role of Charles Bukowski and turn the author’s great comic novel, Hollywood, about the making of Barfly, into a film; Rourke now resembles the actual late middle aged Chianski.
In the Expendable scene, Stallone is uncertain about going back to the island to complete the mission. Rourke convinces him otherwise, but he alleviates the doubt by explaining that he has to save the girl. As Rourke paints flowers on a guitar (you have to see this), he talks about how being a bad ass mercenary made him dead inside, how during a bloody mission in Serbia (yes, that Serbia!) he killed so many people, but there was a woman he didn’t stop from committing suicide. Well, let’s just say he regrets his inaction because it made him loose his soul. Yes, yes, this is pure purple prose pulp and what turns this crapola into believable entraining crapola is Rourke. When his voice chokes up and he softly weeps, you believe it, and thus you believe the film (at least until the final credits). Stallone just listens – an overlooked acting skill, it takes two to make a scene and even if you’re not taking you are still acting. Stallone listened and reacted very well in the film Copland, where he let actors like Deniro and Kietal monologue away. Stallone is actually a well rounded, gifted talent acting-wise and with age, he seems to be paying more attention to his craft.
With his debut in Body Heat, Rourke showed his talent for supporting roles. He soon moved to leading man status, but after weird misfires like Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and the attempt at a boxing career, his come back – until the Wrestler – consisted of notable supporting roles (Animal Factory).
His characters have few scenes, but one of them is usually an essential monologue, where he establishes the emotional believability of a story. In The Pledge, the excellent suspense/psychological drama directed by Sean Penn, Jack Nicholson is a retired cop who can’t give up a case, the pursuit of a serial killer who abducts and murders little girls. Rourke is a father of one of the victims. During the investigation, Nicholson visits Rourke in an asylum. A mesmerizing performance by Mickey, and Nicholson, in rare reaction mode, listens, giving respect to his under-appreciated colleague by stepping away from the spotlight. Nicholson creates both a space for the purposes of the story and a setting where this thespian can let his acting excel.
Similarly, in a more comic vein, in the under-seen film, Spun. Rourke, a meth “cook” this time, gives a monologue in an adult book store about America and drugs, again taking a supporting role. He doesn’t upstage the younger actors, he doesn’t steal the movie. Rourke gives the story emotional credibility. Masked & Anonymous is another example, but being a Dylan (Dylan, always Dylan) I can’t go there right now
I can’t recommend any of Mickey Rourke’s films as films. But for cinematic acting, just about all are examples of this craft its highest level. He doesn’t turn the Expendables into Apocalypse Now, but he makes you care about and believe its predictable hour and forty three minutes.