Barry Norman on The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke triumphs in this comeback movie that won him his first Oscar

Scott Fitzgerald once said there were no second acts in American lives. Try telling that to Mickey Rourke. In the 1980s, with films like Rumble Fish, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Angel Heart and Barfly, he was a rising star.

But in 1991, aged 38, he made a remarkable career switch and went off to get his features drastically rearranged as a professional boxer. Over the next four years, he won six and drew two bouts against people nobody had ever heard of, and though a few film roles came his way, by the 2000s, Rourke, ex-star, ex-boxer, was a has-been.

A supporting role in Sin City attracted attention, but the curtain didn’t truly rise on his second act until 2008 with The Wrestler, in which he was so good that he won his first (and so far only) Oscar nomination.

As the eponymous hero, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, this was a role with which he surely identified — a man who has seen better days, a professional wrestler who had once starred in all the main venues but now lives in a trailer and scrapes a living by performing in small, shabby halls and working in a grocery store. His long, straggly hair is suspiciously blond, his body puffed up by steroids, but ambition still burns fiercely: he wants to get back to the top and maybe, just maybe, the chance might come his way.

Meanwhile, however, he has other issues to cope with, principally his relationships with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and a stripper (Marisa Tomei, herself successfully hitting the comeback trail here with an Oscar nomination).

Professional wrestling is, of course, a well-rehearsed fake and Darren Aronofsky’s film makes no bones about it — the scenes in which Rourke and his fellow grapplers get together to work out the scenario are among the best in the movie. But then every scene in which Rourke appears is immensely watchable.

In his finest performance yet, he goes through the film like an elemental force. You feel his every hurt, both physically (even professional wrestlers do get hurt) and emotionally. This is screen acting of a very high level. As the stripper reluctant to commit to Rourke, Tomei, whose own career faded in the 1990s, is almost as good. She realises, as he doesn’t, that they both fake it to please the customer: he in the ring; she with her lap dancing.

And though the film does drift into the sentimental, you really care about these people. Slightly sad note: after its explosive start, Rourke’s second act is progressing rather slowly. Nothing nearly as good as this has come his way since. But no doubt, like Randy the Ram, he lives in hope.