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Thursday, April 21, 2005 06:00 pm

flicks 4-21-05

Mickey Rourke is back, and he’s uglier than ever. It’s great to see his triumphant return as the hulking Marv in Sin City, even if you can’t really see him under the mounds of makeup. Rourke became the golden boy of 1980s cinema, and he was carving out a career as the next great rebel actor. What derailed him? Could it have been too many left-of-center roles and projects? Perhaps it was the taint from the trash films 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) and Wild Orchid (1990). Skip both films, if you value your brain cells, and focus on Rourke’s better work. He had an extraordinary run of good films during the ’80s. Rourke’s first significant role was in the highly regarded but little-seen Diner (1982). He was part of an ensemble cast, but his turn as the sleazy member of the group established the persona that has characterized his entire career.

Rourke’s image melded perfectly with the intensely flamboyant police drama Year of the Dragon (1985), in which he stars as an obsessive cop determined to bring down a Chinese crime boss (John Lone) in New York’s Chinatown. Reaction might have been more positive if it hadn’t been Michael Cimino’s first film after the disastrous Heaven’s Gate, which featured Rourke in a bit part. Cimino has been accused of excessiveness, and the sensory overload of Dragon is certainly proof. These attributes should be viewed as positives compared with the vacuousness of too many Hollywood movies.

Rourke’s next great role was as a New Orleans private detective in the controversial Angel Heart (1987). The negative publicity surrounding Rourke’s sex scene with Lisa Bonet overshadowed the film’s true qualities. Rourke is hired by a mysterious stranger (Robert De Niro), humorously named Louis Cyphre, to find a missing musician, and everyone he questions dies a ghastly death. Angel Heart is a hybrid film, mixing the traditional detective story with the occult. The result is a film that ranks among the best of both genres.

Later that same year, Barfly offered Rourke the grubbiest role of his career. Barfly is based on the autobiographical writings of Charles Bukowski, a major fan of drinking. There has never been a funnier and more honest film about alcoholism, and Rourke wallows in the filth so convincingly that the public wondered whether he ever bathed. Perhaps they prefer cleaner stars.

Rourke starred in a few more good films, but they failed at the box office and he was relegated to supporting-actor status. Rourke has starred in too many good films to cover, but Rumble Fish (1983), The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), Johnny Handsome (1989), and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991) are also highly recommended. Maybe the spotlight of Sin City will bring him back to starring roles where he belongs.

DVDs scheduled for release Tuesday (April 26):Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Blade: Trinity, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Undertow, and Darkness.

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