By Owen Gleiberman
May 11, 2010 at 03:29 PM EDT

Image Credit: AFP/Stringer/Getty ImagesEven for those of us who cheered, and cherished, the comeback of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008), there’s no denying that that once-in-a-lifetime resurrection steered his career smack into a giant question mark. The question was: What could he possibly do next? As marvelous as he was in The Wrestler, everything about the role seemed so… singular. The poignant, ingeniously conceived parallel between Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s broken-down career and lost-in-the-1980s glory days and Mickey Rourke’s own faded greatness. The way that Rourke’s ruined beauty — the face like melted rubber, a Silly Putty tragedy mask — became the living embodiment of a character who had battered himself, body and soul, into a hulking wreck of flesh. And, of course, the whole comeback scenario itself, which resonated uniquely beyond the edges of the movie screen, so that Rourke seemed to be acting out a metaphorical version of his own teary-eyed resilience. The Wrestler was as canny and artful a platform as a matinee-idol–turned–macho-freak– turned–Hollywood-has-been–turned–great-actor-all-over-again could possibly have hoped for. But given that, what could Mickey Rourke do for an encore?

Just about the first thing he did was extremely shrewd. With the red carpet now rolled out for him (though for how long, no one could guess), he struck while the awards glow was hot and signed on to play the villain in Iron Man 2, thereby proving his viability as a mainstream star. It was a resolutely ace move, because in Hollywood today, you’re either bankable or you’re nobody, and Rourke, it’s clear, had had enough of being nobody. As the Russian superbaddie Ivan Vanko, whipping around those high-voltage lightning lanyards, brooding in his lab, Rourke is just fine: a Slavic brute with a heart of stone. But when you hear the actor talk about how he worked for months on his Russian accent, you can’t help but wish that there was a little more to the character — that Vanko’s hatred of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark weren’t so one-dimensional, that it led to somewhere where Rourke could really, you know, act.

The point is that he gets the job done; he does the cartoon-evil comic-book dance. And that dutiful marionette spirit — the thing that to me, frankly, limits his performance — is what makes Rourke, in Iron Man 2, come off as such a good Hollywood soldier, an actor who paid his dues, stretched his art wings, and is now ready to rock according to the industry’s franchise terms. And make no mistake: Rourke is such a supple actor that in his big, beefy hands, playing the game looks not so much cynical as downright invigorating. On Jimmy Kimmel Live! last week, he was funny and punchy and loose, with a lot less of that woeful abashment that marked his publicity appearances at the time of The Wrestler. This time, Rourke worked the angle of grooving on his success, and it looked good on him. You could even see bits of the old Rourke coming through, the one from the ’80s who would bat his James Dean eyelashes and curl his Elvis lips and make flirting seem like the highest form of sincerity. For a moment, you almost forget that Rourke now resembles Elvis Frankenstein.

And that’s the real issue, isn’t it? What can an actor who’s as great as Mickey Rourke, but who now looks the way that Mickey Rourke looks, do to find his place in a movie culture now dominated by facile, airy youthful beauty? For openers, he’ll be seen later this summer, playing a character named Tool in The Expendables, a retro action thriller, directed by and starring Sylvester Stallone, that gathers together many a grade-B star from the ’80s. And Rourke is reportedly in talks to star as Sonny Barger in a Hells Angels movie to be directed by Tony Scott, which could be an inspired role for him.

But can’t you already see the pattern here? The comeback of Mickey Rourke may indeed stick, because with his scarred façade and sensitive roughneck mystique, he’s a naturally stylized bruiser-saint who could corner the market on a certain type of pulp action-comix testosterone-on-steroids cachet. The irony is that where he was once odd man out, he’s now odd man in; he can fit all too snugly into a movie industry that is now built, to a large degree, on stylized, action-brute, anti-psychological characters. But I also hope that the new, iron-man Mickey Rourke keeps looking for adventurous chances to act. I hope that he thinks outside the box, instead of getting trapped in a box of new-style hipster-hulk typecasting.

Which leads me to ask: How would you cast Mickey Rourke? What sort of role would you now like to see him take on? Should he play a thriller demigod, a Mob boss, Stanley Kowalski, or maybe a middle-aged art-house chick-flick romantic hero paired with…whom? And do you think that Hollywood is going to respond to his comeback by doing him justice, or turning him into an outsize cartoon?

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