Mickey Rourke originally aspired to careers as a pro baseball player and - later - a championship boxer, but did a 180 away from the ring and cut his chops as an actor instead. Rourke launched his career with small roles in 1941 (1979) and Heaven's Gate (1981) before gaining broader notice as a pyro expert in Body Heat (1981) and one of the raunchier leads in Barry Levinson's Diner (1982). He followed with admirable work in Rumble Fish (1983) and The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984), and gave a bravura performance as fanatically determined police captain Stanley White in Year of the Dragon (1985). When the film was slammed by critics, Rourke defended director Michael Cimino and snubbed all interview requests. He immediately gained a reputation as a perfectionist, agreeing only to work with directors and on projects that met with his high standards. His 1987 performances in Angel Heart, A Prayer for the Dying, and Barfly attest to this, but starring roles in Adrian Lyne's infamous 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) and Zalman King's Wild Orchid (1990) gave him a "Eurotrash" taint, only enhanced by his hot temper and maverick nature. These qualities, however, while career poison in the U.S., did nothing to hurt Rourke's reputation in France, where filmgoers adored him.
From the late '80s through the early '90s, the career of this disillusioned actor with the potential of Robert De Niro spiraled down, down, down, with his co-starring appearance in Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991) just one nadir. He wrote, produced, and starred in Homeboy (1988), a film about a near brain-dead prize fighter. It skipped theatrical release and went straight to home video. The masochistic connection between this film and Rourke's subsequent resumption of his boxing career (from 1991-1994) was undeniable, though he continued to appear sporadically in small films and supporting roles. In 1997, Rourke reprised his role as an s&m fetishist in Another 9 1/2 Weeks, a virtual remake of the original, only sans the redeeming presence of Kim Basinger.
Although Rourke's career consisted primarily of direct-to-video titles for several years, he had enough friends and respect among his contemporaries that he hung on to his rebound potential, and his small role in Francis Ford Coppola's 1997 adaptation of John Grisham's The Rainmaker marked something of a comeback. The following year, Vincent Gallo, an unapologetic fan of Rourke's, cast him as the antagonist in Gallo's directorial debut, Buffalo '66; the long-dormant Terrence Malick also cast Rourke in his critically-worshipped Thin Red Line (1998), but Malick excised the actor's scenes from the final cut, probably to reduce the film's whopping length. Rourke showed flashes of his former brilliance in Steve Buscemi's Animal Factory (2000), joined the cast of the Sly Stallone-headlined Get Carter remake that same year, and gave an impressive supporting performance in Sean Penn's police procedural-cum-harrowing study of obsession, The Pledge (2001).
Rourke also signed on with director Robert Rodriguez for the third of that helmer's Mariachi films, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, in 2003. As a harbinger of things to come, a powerful creative bond formed between the weathered, iconic Rourke and the tireless director on the Mexico set. In 2005 the duo again teamed for Rodriguez's and Frank Miller's eagerly anticipated big screen adaptation of Miller's Sin City comics. Cast as lovelorn brute Marv, Rourke delivered an impressive performance as an imposing beast of a fellow bent on avenging the death of an angelic prostitute in this stylish noir comic book come to life, which gave him cult status among a new generation of fans. In 2004, Rourke delivered a memorable supporting performance in Tony Scott's Man on Fire alongside Denzel Washington; it marked the first film in a two-picture creative partnership between Scott and Rourke, the second half of which came to fruition with 2005's Domino.
2006 saw Rourke appearing in Stormbreaker (co-starring Bill Nighy and Ewan McGregor) with Rourke as the nasty villain opposite Alex Pettyfer's "teen spy" Alex Ryder. Killshot, with Rourke as the hitman who attempts to rub out married Federal Witnesses Diane Lane and Thomas Jane, ended up being sitting on the studio's shelf for nearly three years. The film marked Rourke's first collaboration with Lane since Francis Coppola's critically-championed 1983 cult film Rumble Fish.
With the release of 2008's The Wrestler, Rourke pulled off one of the most remarkable career comeback stories of the era. His role as the aging professional grappler Randy "The Ram" earned him the strongest reviews he'd received in over two decades, and secured him his first acting nomination from the Academy as well as a nod from Screen Actors Guild, and he took home the Golden Globe for best actor in a drama. Rourke would enjoy sustained success in the years to follow, appearing in films like Iron Man 2, The Expendables, and Immortals.