What is it about movies with Mickey Rourke playing washed-up athletes that move me so much? Homeboy was a passion project of Rourke’s for many years; in fact, he wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym “Sir” Eddie Cook. With his screenplay written, it was time to hire a director; enter: Michael Seresin, cinematographer for Angel Heart and Matt Reeves’ Planet of the Apes movies. Homeboy would also be Seresin’s first and final directorial feature. Rourke would also cast his then-wife Debra Feuer as the film’s love interest. As you can see, Rourke had a lot of stock put into this film, but like most passion projects, it was ultimately dismissed by the general audience. Even today, you won’t find that many people who have even heard of this movie. For further proof, look this film up on Letterboxd. Rourke would eventually make a comeback by playing a similar character in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, so in what ways did The Wrestler where Homeboy failed?
Before we dive into the review, let’s start with the basics. What’s it about? Mickey Rourke plays Johnny Walker, a washed-up boxer with brain damage. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Walker links up with sleazy fight promoter Wesley Pendergass played by a lively Christopher Walken before he became a walking meme. Much like the sleazy promoter he is, Pendergass hopes to make a profit off of Walker despite the toll that fighting has taken on his body, but Walker might be ready to give it up when he meets Ruby, played by Debra Heuer. With a promising fight on the horizon, Walker needs to make his decision: fight for pride or fight for love?
I love my films rugged with a side of vulnerability and Homeboy is a wonderful concoction that is both masculine and emotionally exposed. Mickey Rourke is good at a lot of things, but he’s one of the few action stars who isn’t afraid of being vulnerable onscreen. Rourke’s strengths as a physical performer go a long way in running home the point that Johnny Walker is a man way past his prime. Just like a wounded dog with some bite left in it, Walker limps his way throughout the film and only comes alive when it’s time to fight. It’s a quiet performance with very little dialogue, but from the body movements to the beaten down look in his eyes, Rourke is able to say so much without having to say a word. There’s probably a good reason they don’t have Rourke talk too much and it’s to hide the terrible accent that jumps between Southern and Rourke’s regular speaking voice. In comparison to The Wrestler, it was probably way too soon for Rourke to play a washed up fighter way past his prime, but you can’t call it a miscast because the performance is believable.
It isn’t only the characters who are out of luck and out of time, but it’s pretty much all of Asbury Park, NJ that looks like it was scrapped up and left for the bikers and drunks who inhabit it. When we’re not hanging out with Rourke and crew in the ring, we’re hanging out with Rourke and crew by the shore, the empty amusement park, and… Only in cinema is it possible to make the most rough and tumble areas seem so pleasant and beautiful. Part of that charm is because of the major and minor characters who live in this world. Homeboy isn’t as concerned with plot as it is with vibes and getting to know all the major and minor characters who inhabit this world. “Vibes” is the keyword here because Homeboy is pure vibes. There are a handful of boxing sequences throughout, but for the most part, we’re just following Walker and Pendergass as they talk about love and dinosaurs. Yes, Christopher Walker’s Pendergass gives a monologue about dinosaurs.
Speaking of Christopher Walken, the man gives a delightfully slimy performance as Wesley Pendergass! We all know the iconic Walken voice, but I feel as if there’s not enough talk about him as a character actor. From King of New York to Pulp Fiction, Walken proves that no matter how big or small the role is, he’s still the one you’ll be talking about once the film’s over. Walken and Rourke do make a terrific pairing because Walken’s flamboyant persona is a neat contrast that works well with Rourke’s demure performance. Their personalities are different, but much like Walker, Pendergass is also down on his luck; the only difference is how both characters deal with it. For all the expensive clothes Pendergass flaunts, he’ll still sneak into hotel rooms with his meth buddy to steal some cash. The performance works because despite how sleazy the character is, it’s Walken’s charisma that draws you in. It’s obvious that Pendergass is bad for Walker, but their dialogue together comes across as so genuine that the friendship doesn’t feel one-sided until the third act, which is a bit messy in terms of pacing.
Homeboy is all over the place with its pacing and editing. There were definitely moments where I felt the sequences dragged on for too long and could have used some trimming. The final act of the film jumps between two narratives: Walker’s final fight and Pendergass’ robbery. At times, the fight sequence goes on for so long, that you forget that there’s a robbery going on at the same time. There’s no tension because there’s no rhythm, and without that rhythm, neither of those two narratives get to really stand out. It also doesn’t help that they set all of this up so suddenly near the end of the second act, which is a small part to a larger issue. I like the overall hangout vibe of the film, but there are times when it suddenly decides to have a plot that it throws off the film’s tempo. It meanders quite a bit which will be a challenge for most viewers, but the strength of Homeboy’s characters and setting are more than enough to make the film an enjoyable experience.
Homeboy is the sweet spot between Rocky and The Wrestler and is the perfect fit for a triple feature. It isn’t as uplifting as Rocky, but it’s not as depressing as The Wrestler, so it works as the middle ground. It’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of pacing, but that’s ok because it’s pleasant to lose track of time with these characters. Rourke’s physical performance is outstanding, but he still looks too young to take on this particular role and no amount of prosthetics can accurately display age the way that time can. Under a more confident director, this could have been an outstanding sports film, but it’s too aimless to ever appeal to a wider audience. What keeps it from being an outright failure is the sincerity in the performances, setting, and tone.