Proving that you don’t need a lot of screen time to make an impression, Mickey Rourke steals both of his scenes in the neo-noir thriller Body Heat (1981). He plays an arsonist hired by William Hurt (who was once Rourke’s lawyer for some past crimes) when Hurt wants to commit arson to cover up a murder. Rourke’s lip-syncing of the Bob Seger song “Feel Like a Number” immediately makes him likeable; as if that weren’t enough to convince the audience, his bit of advice for Hurt (“…and you ain’t no genius”) hits the nail on the head, showing that he’s much smarter than his chosen career would suggest. At the 2:41 mark the video switches to the second Rourke scene, later in the film, after Hurt has committed the crime which Rourke helped him with. In those moments you realize more than ever just how lost Hurt is, how impossible it will be for him to escape fate. Rourke is wise to Hurt’s weaknesses.
Then there is Diner, the 1982 film that really launched Rourke’s career. His character, “Boogie” Sheftell, can’t resist a bet whether he has a chance of winning it or not. He gives the character a sympathetic edge, despite his loser-ish qualities (not unlike what he does in Body Heat). You can’t help rooting for him to succeed.
As the only two Mickey Rourke films I’ve seen, Body Heat and Diner are currently all I have to judge his career by, but based on those two performances, I would love to see more. Some would argue that a huge film fan such as myself should have seen his later efforts Sin City and The Wrestler by now anyway – although I make no apologies for skipping Iron Man 2, Rourke or not.