Downey vs. Rourke: A Tale of Two Comebacks

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In my Iron Man 2 review last week, I briefly (and abortively) tried to shoehorn in a thought about the careers—in some ways neatly parallel, in others widely divergent—of star Robert Downey Jr. and (primary) antagonist Mickey Rourke. David Edelstein flicks at the idea with customary panache:

For all the tumultuous comings-and-goings... the movie's fulcrum is an actor who, nearly 30 years ago, in Diner, was more money than Vince Vaughn and now is more nightmarish than Freddy Krueger. Mickey Rourke plays Stark's scariest adversary, the low-tech Russian killer Ivan Vanko (a.k.a. Whiplash), with messy tattoos and a mouthful of metal from which he spits blood—smiling, of course. Striding into the middle of a racetrack, he throws out arms extended by long electric tendrils and slashes through cars as they hurtle past, the man of war as man-o'-war.... When Iron Man and Whiplash face off, you're aware of the actors under the costumes, of the preening ex-addict Downey and the loose cannon Rourke. Such is the voltage of Iron Man 2: Even with a thousand computer artists between the actors and us, we can still feel those mad, crazy, dangerous egos on the line.

Though a bit more than a decade separates Downey and Rourke, both began their careers as handsome young actors of vivid talent. And both, after tousling publicly with self-destruction, have been restored to prominence, Downey as the cornerstone of two gigadollar franchises and Rourke as a near- (and ought-to-have-been-) Best Actor winner.

Yet while Downey emerged from his struggles with addiction much as he entered them—wry, charming, good-looking—Rourke returned from his longer odyssey of booze, boxing, reconstructive surgery, and God knows what else as a kind of magnificent wreckage, an epic cautionary tale. There is the physical evolution, of course, a transformation as complete as Bruce Banner's into the Hulk, which continues to astonish and distress. But there's more to it than that: Rourke's performances today resonate with pain and a hard-won self-knowledge. Matt Zoller Seitz captures this peculiar charisma in a thoughtful dismantling of Iron Man 2 and the superhero genre:

His ferociously committed performance—so weird and overwhelming that [director Jon] Favreau uses him sparingly, the way Ishirô Honda used Godzilla—reminds us that there's a world beyond the edges of this movie's Dave & Buster's-meets-Disneyworld panoramas, a world of silence, hunger and rage. It's a world that has nothing to do with billionaire playboys and boxing robots and everything to do with deprivation, ambition and revenge. Whiplash won't show you that world because you're pampered and weak, and because he's not done eating his goulash.

Even as Downey has been restored to the bosom of Hollywood, Rourke, whatever turns his career may take, is forever outside it, beyond it. He will take what it gives him, but he seems disinclined to ask. He is a Morlock among Eloi, and the knowledge that this is so gives him a rare power, and even authority, onscreen. He doesn't give a shit what you and your pretty friends think of him.

And yet, the cost has been so great. There's a scene early in Iron Man 2 in which Rourke's character, an embittered Russian physicist whose youth seems to have been spent half in prison and half receiving cut-rate orthodonture, watches Downey, as Tony Stark, give a triumphal press conference, only to have his dying father tell him: "That should be you." I don't know whether that line had deeper echoes for Rourke. But it surely did for me.

When I think of Mickey Rourke, my first thought is not of Whiplash, or Randy the Ram, or Sin City's Marv, indelible though those roles were. Rather, I think of his supporting turn in 1981's Body Heat—really, just a couple of scenes—and the electric nonchalance he displayed as a young actor, his casual ownership of the camera lens. For anyone else inclined to ponder what once was, and imagine what might have been, I offer this reminder:

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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