Before 2005’s Sin City, my only familiarity with actor Mickey Rourke was his small part as the chihuahua owning criminal in Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Suddenly, with his iconic turn as the framed bruiser Marv, Mickey Rourke’s career was reborn like the phoenix from the ashes. Rodriguez’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel would have been an entertaining but expected translation of a beloved classic. Mickey Rourke took his scenes and just ran away with them. There was almost universal consensus that he was the high point of the film, and his career has hardly slowed down since. He picked up a Golden Globe for his iconic performance in Darren Aranofsky’s The Wrestler (and barely lost the Oscar to Sean Penn for Milk) and has managed to reposition himself as a 50’s something action star with turns in The Expendables, Iron Man 2, and Immortals. Despite his recent success, Rourke is still a sad cautionary tale of wasted talent. In the 1980’s, Mickey Rourke was poised to be the next Marlon Brando and his star was set to eclipse even that of Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. Yet, he essentially through it all away with increasingly self-destructive behavior and incomprehensible decision to temporarily give up acting to pursue a career in boxing (a field in which he had previous training). It would be nearly 20 years before his part in Sin City reminded the world of the star he could have been. 1984’s The Pope of Greenwich Village was my first exposure to pre-meltdown Mickey Rourke, and while the film moves at an incredibly languid pace, Rourke’s performance is spectacular and you get a performance from Eric Roberts that manages to simultaneously be both brilliant and awful at the same time. It’s an interesting if flawed picture.

The Pope of Greenwich Village (based off of a Vincent Patrick novel of the same name) focuses on small-time hood Charlie (Mickey Rourke) and his perpetual screw-up of a cousin Paulie (Eric Roberts). After one of Paulie’s bone-headed get rich schemes gets Charlie and Paulie fired from their cushy gigs at a fancy restaurant (where the more capable Charlie was in charge of number running), Charlie is forced to watch his life fall apart in front of him. In short order, he loses his girlfriend Diane (Daryl Hannah), his son, and what little money he had. Things start to look up when Paulie comes to him with a “sure-fire” scheme for the pair to make enough money to retire. Paulie knows of a horse he thinks is guaranteed to win a big race, and he wants Charlie to help him steal $150,000 from a safe that is just waiting to be cracked. Just when the stars are beginning to align for Charlie, an undercover cop accidentally dies trying to stop their robbery, and things go from bad to worse when they discover the $150 grand they stole belonged to a local mafioso with a penchant for taking body parts off of those who wrong him.

Before I get into all of the things I thought this film did spectacularly well (Rourke’s performance chief among them), I want to examine the film’s most unforgivable flaw. Without wanting to come out and say the movie is boring (because it certainly kept me engaged over the course of its two hours), I can definitely call it torpid and snail-like. Outside of a few key moments here and there, not a whole lot happens. This would be more acceptable if the movie had some grand statement about life or some deep insight into the human condition, but it doesn’t. Instead, we just get a fairly detailed portrait of a couple of days in the lives of two hoods who have delusions of grandeur (especially Paulie). There wasn’t any engaging character development, and I essentially didn’t know any more about the motivations and make-up of these characters than I did after the first thirty minutes. If I give the film’s writing any credit, it had some consistently funny and quotable dialogue although that still wasn’t enough to distract me from how slow the movie could be.

As anyone who’s seen The Wrestler knows, Mickey Rourke has an incredibly naturalistic style of acting. Eschewing any of the theatrical artifices that normally come with the trade, Rourke just taps into something so inner and real that you completely forget that this is a man acting. That’s an impressive feat in and of itself. What pushes him to five star acting talent is his ability to combine this with startling levels of intensity. I watched this film and all I could think about was Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (though his famous line from On the Waterfront of “I coulda been a contender” springs to mind regarding Rourke’s career). From Stanley Kowalksi to Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, he continues that long lasting tradition of a homespun passion and fire. You put Mickey Rourke in front of the camera and give him a character full of life and zip, and he’s going to blow the audience away. This film was no exception. It wasn’t as challenging a part as in The Wrestler, but it was still incredibly impressive. Less impressive (but perhaps more interesting) was Eric Roberts. He has an exceptionally expressive face, and with just a few facial gestures or motions of his body, he could channel all of the dim-witted bombast that makes Paulie the loser he is. However, Eric Roberts then proceeds to open his mouth, and you have to wonder if Roberts has ever actually heard another human being speak. I can say with no hesitation that I’ve never heard another person talk the way Eric Robert talks in this movie. I honestly can’t tell if it’s brilliant or horrendous. My opinion would drastically swing one way or the other over the course of any given scene.

For fans of crime movies, this isn’t in the same league as Goodfellas or even the under-rated British film The Long Good Friday, but it’s still something you should give a try if you’re into incredibly well-acted cinema. It moves at its own deliberate pace, and by the time the film ends, you’ll probably wonder if there was any point to what you just watched. But, I highly doubt you’ll consider the film a waste of your time. The more and more I think about Rourke’s performance in this film, the sadder I get about the wasted potential that was his career. Much like River Phoenix (though River died and never had the chance to stage Mickey’s current comeback) in My Own Private Idaho, this is a look at an iconic star in the making who unfortunately took himself out of the picture. Geraldine Page was nominated for an Oscar for this film in a small supporting role as the hard-ass mother of the cop who dies and she was nearly as excellent as Rourke. I also read somewhere that Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter) was originally asked to direct this. I think his version of this film could have been a masterpiece since The Deer Hunter still ranks as what I consider to be the greatest war film of all time, bar none.

Final Score: B

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