Mickey Rourke has been called the Hollywood outlaw by some, a difficult outsider by others, a master of his craft by anyone with sense, and has never not been a completely surprising thespian who refuses to reside within one box for long. He’s an outspoken, candid guy who has never been afraid of speaking his mind or laying down the verbal hammer. For me, Mickey is an undisputed genius of his craft and has shined like a brilliant nebula of talent, intuition and brilliance in each and every role he has brought to our screens. Here are my personal top ten performances from one of my all time favourite actors:
10. Billy Chambers in Once Upon A Time In Mexico
Director Robert Rodriguez allowed Mickey to carry around his own personal chihuahua (something that he has walked off of a set in a huff over in the past), and encouraged him to wear his personal shiny purple suit to play Chambers, a gruff cowboy hiding out in Mexico and working for a ruthless cartel boss (Willem Dafoe, a frequent Rourke collaborator). Chambers seems like a sly amalgamation of several early characters he played, world weary from too many skirmishes and events gone wrong, marinating in the Mexican sun and wishing for an exodus from criminal life. Billy has trouble with the sadistic tasks which the cartel orders him to carry out, showing a delineation between a life of crime and an evil path. Regretful, posturing and laconic, the first team up between Rourke and Rodriguez turns out to be a delight.
9. Captain Stanley White in Year Of The Dragon
Rourke first did a bit part for manic maestro Michael Cimino in the notorious Heaven’s Gate, a precursor to his turn in this blistering cop film as a belligerent, hard nosed and uncompromising cop who will do anything in his power, and even a few things outside it, to bring down a Chinese crime syndicate. White has tunnel vision, a Viet Nam war veteran whose internal battery is set on search and destroy mode regardless of any collateral damage, of which there is a considerable amount. Rourke takes a blow torch to the character until the edges flare and fray, never letting the heat lower for a second, be it an introspective moment that smoulders or one of many thunderous outbursts of self righteous, racist fury.
8. Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson
Some see this role as Rourke’s comeback, but similar to Randy ascending the ranks of his former glory only to take a hazardous dive off the ring and back down again, such was the case for Rourke, who is back to smaller films. For a single piercing couple hours, he brought us legendary work in an Oscar nominated turn that burns deep, encased in Darren Aronofsky’s intrepid direction. Randy is a fallen Titan who is looking for another shot in both his professional and personal life, and Rourke gives him the presence to hit home.
7. The Motorcycle Boy in Rumble Fish
Returning from a mysterious motorbike odyssey, speaking in cryptically poetic fashion and filling out the restless bad boy archetype like no other, this is one of Rourke’s most fascinating turns, in a surreal black & white tumble town that evokes the 1950’s beautifully. He’s relaxed yet uneasy, friendly yet vaguely portentous and obtains an intangible state of heightened awareness with his work that you can never quite pin down or explain properly in words. His character’s resolution seem fittingly oblique, matched by his performance that simultaneously cries out and holds back, often mirroring each other eerily.
6. Jim Olstadt in The Pledge
Sean Penn cast Rourke for an appearance that lasts for less than a minute, and he manages to quietly devastate and then some within that time. He plays a grieving father who is questioned by Jack Nicholson’s obsessed detective about his young daughter, who disappeared several years before. Unshaven, chain smoking and hiding behind a vacant expression, Nicholson’s queries trigger a well of raw anguish which spill out unforced into the certain and seem remarkably genuine. It’s uncomfortable, despairing and you just want to walk right into the screen and give poor Olstadt a hug. His work is that good, a gem of an appearance in probably the best film on this list.
5. Marv in Sin City
When Robert Rodriguez told Frank Miller of his notion to cast Rourke as the hulking bruiser Marv, Miller’s response was “What, that skinny guy from Body Heat?”. Rodriguez had a vision though, which Rourke followed through with in legendary fashion. Marv has to be played by a performer with the right presence (Ron Perlman and Clancy Brown could have taken a decent crack), someone with somber grit and just the right shot of blackest humour. Rourke sets the role on fire, filling every gorgeously composed frame with his Boulder tough, terrifying and surprisingly touching take on the character.
4. Ed Moseby in Domino
The title of most legendary bounty hunter in Los Angeles is a pretty steep hill for any actor to start out on in at the beginning of their performance. Mentor to Domino Harvey, street smart professional, world weary badass and all around character, Ed is one third of the film’s psychedelic soul and Rourke charges full guns ahead with the work, pausing at penultimate crossroads to show us the seething regret and sadness that Ed harbours beneath the violence and tough guy shell. There’s one scene with co star Edgar Ramirez that seems pulled straight from Rourke’s own history, where the camera sits still long enough to allow him to show piercing truth.
3. Charlie in The Pope Of Greenwich Village
Charlie is a small time thug who does his absolute best to not be a screw up. Only problem, he’s saddled with best friend Paulie (Eric Roberts) who happens to be the biggest screw up this planet has ever seen. The pair are comic dynamite, Rourke setting off on exasperated tirades whenever Roberts gets them in hot water, and then using his brand of cunning and survival instinct to bail them out. Rourke shows a fox-like resourcefulness, a hurricane of anxious energy that cools over when evasive action is required. Charlie is Rourke in his youth and loving the game, firing synaptic bursts of energy at Roberts and receiving them back in synergy, showing off what a great onscreen duo they make.
2. The Cook in SPUN
A cowboy hat wearing, meth cooking oddball hardly seems like the type of character to land an emotional punch, and for the most part you’d be right to think that. Rourke is like Jim Carrey in the mask here, inhabiting an overblown and dizzyingly stylistic aesthetic that exists to show us the unhinged lifestyle of meth addicts. He jumps from serious to scary to funny to sad so quick it’s hard to put the puzzle of his character together, until a n emotional wipeout of a monologue that’s delivered late in the last act, bringing his sad arc full circle. Be it a seminar on the political qualities of Pussy, a whopper of a tiff with girlfriend Brittany Murphy or a brief tongue in cheek encounter with Eric Roberts, it’s glitzy grungy playtime all the way, until we get to that one extended speech, which halts the mayhem and sobers the viewer up post-delirium. It’s tearful in a film where you’d last expect it, and Rourke handles the 180 degree turn like the master he is.
1. Harry Angel in Angel Heart
In one of the finest and most flat out unnerving southern gothic horror films ever made, Rourke throws himself at the role of a down and out private detective who is hired by a sinister Robert De Niro to find a missing singer who doesn’t even seem to exist at all. Harry starts off in control, assured, well travelled. His nerves begin to shake when a trail of hideously murdered bodies pile up behind him, seemingly connected to his search. Rourke slowly unscrews the lid of Harry’s sanity in a sweaty frenzy of fractured machismo and blossoming terror, his fear riling up the audience with each new grisly discovery. There’s plot revelations, shocking violence, the mother of all graphic sex scenes, steeped melodrama and a near constant state of primeval fear, all infused into his performance with skill and tact. For me, Rourke has never been more ‘Rourke’, in all facets, than he was as Angel.