In 2005, after nearly 15 years or so in the direct-to-video and “B” movie trenches of ‘nowhereville’, actor Mickey Rourke experienced a career resurgence with films such as Sin City, Domino and then ultimately his momentous performance as Randy “The Ram” Johnson in The Wrestler three years later. Earning an Oscar nomination for that film as well as the renewed acceptance of Hollywood not seen since his late 80’s heyday, Rourke sort of became a household name again. And even though his latest career choices have been a slight reversion back into low-level, homogeneous video dreck (i.e. Skin Traffik), Rourke still maintains the capacity to stun when he wants. And Tony McNamara’s Ashby is a prime example.
Also written by McNamara, Ashby begins with a sharp dressed Rourke driving down the road, approaching a school crosswalk when he suddenly has a fit and passes out behind the wheel, crashing into the sidewalk as the blank faced children look on. It turns out Ashby is dying and given only a few months to live. Retreating to his mediocre suburban house – alone – he appears content to drink and while his days away in quiet depression.
That is until his neighbor, sixteen year old Ed (Nat Wolff), shows up on his doorstep to interview “an old person” for a school project. Ed has his own problems, namely his complete invisibility at school, not helped by his habit of ducking into lockers whenever the ‘jocks’ come strolling by or his inability to connect with highly intelligent and cute Eloise (Emma Roberts). New in town, his home life is just as bitter as he deals with separated parents. His father, who makes toothless Skype promises to come see him and then bails at the last moment, is a distant cry from his mother (Sarah Silverman), who starves away her loneliness and recent marital rejection by continuous, frustrated dating. I’m sure his confusion is only compounded by the times he walks in on his mother with various men in compromising positions.
As if all this suburban angst weren’t enough, we find out Ashby is an ex-government agent who suddenly grows a conscience when he finds out the actual reason behind several of his ‘assignments’ back in the day weren’t as patriotic as he believed. As Ed continues with his school project, he and Ashby soon form an unlikely alliance, discovering their symbiotic relationship might actually help each other – someway.
Part coming-of-age flick and part violent dark comedy, Ashby is certainly a schizophrenic blend that doesn’t always gel smoothly, but it’s held together by a wonderful performance by Rourke who exerts some unexpected moments of depth and sensitivity. Like a low-rent James Bond or Jason Bourne, he’s saddled with a weepy family history that most likely drives his more violent, expert tendencies. Full of naturally etched history on his face and deep, troubled eyes, Rourke doesn’t have to do much to outwardly personify a man fighting the ghosts of his past, and in Ashby he’s found a perfect match.
Not quite so successful, although probably mandatory to be sold as a teen flick with hot young draws such as Wolff and Roberts, is Ed’s story line, full of sardonic and snarky voice-over that’s become an overused crutch in recent films, as well as a subplot involving Ed’s eventual acceptance onto the football team that feels as if it was drafted in from another film.
With so many incongruous moments such as these, its amazing Ashby doesn’t crumble under its own design. But it works. The relationship between Ashby and Ed, then Ed and Eloise, remain the absolute sharpest aspects of the film because their heart’s in the right place. And, as if he’s conjuring up some magisterial pain like he did in The Wrestler, Rourke again embodies a man who meets his fate head on, contemplating the past and sure the direction he takes for the future is the correct one. It’s a performance that elevates a rather pedestrian film, and so few can do that.
Ashby opens in limited release on Friday, September 25th at the AMC Stonebriar.