"I'm an old, broken down piece of meat." If there's one line from 'The Wrestler' which jumps off the screen and puts the biggest lump in your throat, it's this tearful admission which has as much relevance to the life of Mickey Rourke as to the character he's playing, Randy 'The Ram' Robinson. And throughout this film you're never quite sure which 1980s superstar icon you're rooting for more.

A wrestling legend, whose best days are 20 years behind him, The Ram's life is a wearying mixture of regret, denial and physical pain. Fondly remembered by fans, he's now on the community hall circuit, squaring off against other has-beens or up-and-comers for tiny payouts and supplementing his income by working in a supermarket. Dying his hair, going to tanning salons, dosing himself up with steroids and listening to 1980s hair metal, in the Ram's head he's still 25 - but his body can't be fooled. And, when he suffers a serious health scare, he's forced to confront his own mortality and his greatest adversary: himself.

In a 2005 interview with The London Times, Mickey Rourke was asked what he saw when he looked in the mirror. His reply was painful in its honesty: "What I see is a stranger." From the new Brando to tabloid joke and back to credibility again, Rourke's three-decade journey in the public eye has been among the strangest, taking in brilliant performances, praise, riches, dud films, a boxing career, vilification, lost millions and memorable comeback roles along the way. There's no other actor who could've brought so much to 'The Wrestler' that's not on the page and the film's power comes as much from his redemption as the performance.

It's the story of a man whose life has been devoted to fantasy and the price he has paid for it. Despite the adulation from those with long enough memories and the young kids in the trailer park where he lives, The Ram is alone - estranged from his daughter Stephanie (Wood) and trying desperately to build a relationship with Cassidy (Tomei), the stripper at the club he frequents. She too is selling a fantasy, but she's also a single parent with plans for the future and her attempts to convince the Ram that he can shine off the stage reveals that her beauty is as much on the inside as the out. The awkward, mask-off energy between Rourke and Tomei is beautifully handled and there's excellent support from Wood as The Ram's daughter, her scenes with Rourke as harrowing to watch as any of the physical traumas meted out to the actor during this film.

'The Wrestler' is gritty, raw and bloody and from the locations to the hand-held camera work, director Aronofsky has given the film that feeling of authenticity - real people, real problems. Ultimately, its message is that the greatest victory in life comes from our capacity to endure and our capacity to change. The Ram is a champion at one but Rourke is at both, and, more importantly, for him the best may be yet to come.

Harry Guerin