In “The Expendables,” Mickey Rourke plays a tattoo artist named Tool, a man trying to forget his past. It’s a role Mickey’s been working on all his life, and he’s good at it. Real good. Even his face—sabotaged by years of alcohol, cigarettes and substance abuse, taken apart by beatings in the boxing ring, stitched together by cosmetic surgeries like a stuffed chicken breast—has forgotten what it used to be, what he looked like in his first big movie “Body Heat.” back in 1981, when he was one of the hottest actors in Hollywood. Boyishly American, handsome and so full of promise.

Well, some of the promise is still there. What kind of promise? You can see it in Mickey’s eyes when he’s with his boys onscreen in “The Expendables” —Sylvester Stallone, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren. They hang out in Tool’s tattoo shop, a bunch of tough, dangerous professionals in a world that doesn’t need them anymore, looking for just one more chance… characters played by a bunch of actors who used to be tough and dangerous, now looking for one more shot in a Hollywood that doesn’t need them anymore either. “I’ll be back,” promised Schwarzenegger a while ago, and here he is—onscreen for less than a minute before walking away, as he will soon walk away from his disastrous role as governor of California. The promise they all offer is that despite spectacular failure, there will be a triumphant comeback, and some crazy kind of redemption.

It’s the kind of promise Mickey fulfilled last year in “The Wrestler.” Many said it was an impossible feat to pull off, that Mickey had burned too many bridges, used up all of the goodwill that may have been stored away when he was successful, having screwed himself once too many times along with anyone who might have trusted him. But he promised to leave that all behind and just do the job—if only they’d give him one. He kicked his worst addictions, cleaned up his act, shook hands with the Hollywood Establishment, making peace with his own demons. But now where is he going, this quintessentially American actor?

You might as well ask where America is going, as the weary nation stumbles into a depression as confused and emotional as it is economic. With nearly ten percent unemployment and very few signs of improvement, all anyone wants is a job and a chance to make good on the promise that was always just over the rainbow at the heart of the American Dream. There will be a comeback someday, most Americans believe, and still a chance to get together with friends from the old days, the good old days before the bad times of 9/11 and the long wars that have dragged on, and on, dragging America down.

How did that happen? Might as well trace the trajectory of Mickey’s life.

Born Philip Andre Rourke, Jr. in 1952 in the city of Schenectady, located in the chillier reaches of New York State, Mickey’s parents divorced when he was six years old. A year later, Mickey’s mother left the cold north for the warm shores of South Florida and married a Miami policeman. Young Mickey was good at sports. He played baseball and also got involved with boxing, winning his first fight at the age of twelve as a 118-pound bantamweight. Into his teens, training at Miami’s top gyms with some of the best fight coaches in the business, he put on more pounds and muscle and moved up to welterweight class. From 1964 to 1972 his amateur boxing record of 20 wins (17 by knockout) and 6 defeats heralded a career in the ring.

But the boxing ring has always been a close cousin to the stage and Mickey found himself drawn to acting after a role in Miami Beach High School play. He was coached by legendary South Florida drama teacher Jay Jensen, known as the “Teacher to the Stars,” whose students included Andy Garcia. After a role in a friend’s theatrical production at Miami University, Rourke moved to New York City to study acting and take a shot at the thespian life. He landed his first small movie role in the Steven Spielberg film, “1941” and his career took off after appearing with Darryl Hannah and Eric Roberts in “The Pope of Greenwich Village” (1984).

He went on to rack up credits in more than 60 movies, including Diner, Rumble Fish, Nine ½ Weeks, Angel Heart, Barfly, and punched up his reputation as a Hollywood bad boy. He burned through two marriages, the last one to his “Wild Orchid” co-star, Carrie Otis. After turning down too many juicy roles in too many movies, and behaving badly on the sets of the movies he worked on, the jobs stopped coming. He was the kind of trouble no movie studio wanted to have, no director wanted to deal with, so the jobs stopped coming.

Mickey decided to go back to the ring. He hired a top trainer, put on more muscle and made a good showing, slugging though a short parade of opponents in pursuit of a top-dollar title bout. But he was taking a lot of hits to the head and doctors warned him that any more fighting would finish him forever. Even if he won the title, with all the cumulative punishment to the brain, he wouldn’t even be able to count the money.

The movie business had counted him out for good. Mickey was lost for a while, with only his dog Loki for company, weekly visits to a shrink, and some very dark thoughts—close to suicidal, he has confessed. His friends pulled him back from the brink. When he couldn’t afford a bowl of spaghetti in Hollywood ten years ago, he once told an interviewer, Stallone gave him a part in his movie, “Get Carter.” “That paid my rent for eight months,” said Mickey.

Mickey repaid the debt by appearing in “The Expendables,” which Stallone wrote and directed. Now Mickey’s having a good time with his buddies, and maybe this movie is a joke—an old-fashioned rock’em, sock’em, blow-‘em-all-to-hell action picture that makes all the “Rambo” movies look like video games.

But the joke is on Mickey, and that’s okay. He’s proven himself a serious actor as the Oscar-worthy, Golden Globe-winning Randy the Ram in “The Wrestler.” So Mickey can take it easy for awhile. Now that The Big Comeback has been accomplished, he’s taking roles in movies that are either guaranteed to pull down loads of money at the box office, like the recent “Iron Man 2,” or roles that don’t stretch his talents too far.

In “Passion Play,” a new $14 million independent movie, Mickey is “Nate,” a Chet Baker-ish jazz trumpet player down on his luck who tries to rob a car whose owner turns out to be a gangster who takes him out to the desert to kill him, according to the movie’s description in the Toronto Film Festival program: “and we are at the beginning of a delightful fable about romance and dreams… he meets a beautiful woman who works as the Bird Woman in a circus, he falls madly in love and persuades her to run away with him only to find that life is a little more complicated than simply living one's fantasies.”
That’s a good description of Mickey.

“Passion Play” also stars Bill Murray in yet another strange toupee as a nasty mobster, and sex bomb Megan Fox, who was "probably the best young actress I've ever worked with," Mickey told Entertainment Weekly. Once again, friendship played a role in getting the job. The film’s director Mitch Glazer was Mickey’s high school classmate. Unfortunately, there was not much passion for “Passion Play” at its recent Toronto premiere. According to the Los Angeles Times, the “expressionistic fable was received as something of a spectacular folly.”

Upcoming for Mickey is a starring role as King Hyperion in “Immortals,” a $100M mythological costume drama directed by Tarsem Singhe, and he is rumored to be cast as 1930’s bank robber Baby Face Nelson in a Tony Scott-directed film about Depression Era outlaws, another action movie about doomed American anti-heroes.

Nevertheless, you get the sense from Mickey’s portrayal of Tool in “The Expendables” that despite the comeback and the tributes to heroism, comradeship, ideals and lofty goals, everyone knows it won’t be the same—it can’t be same. Not for Mickey and not for America either. Too many sins committed, too many shameful acts performed, like the fictional murder that the Tool weepily confesses he witnessed and did nothing to prevent, like the non-fictional images of torture at Abu Ghraib that US General Petraeus declared “un-biodegradable.” And just as there will probably be sequels of “The Expendables.” because it earned more than $100M at the US box office despite horrible reviews, there are probably worse times ahead for America.

That’s why Mickey’s role as Tool in “The Expendables” is a little sad, but a little funny, too, and so true to life. Mickey can’t help but see the humor in it and that’s what saves him. It’s what sets him apart from the rest, not only onscreen but in the real world. It’s the promise of redemption for the Irish catholic soul within him.

“I was walking down Wilshire Boulevard and I saw a big smoke signal, it said ‘Mickey, we’re looking for you,’ ” was how he explained to me five years ago his first comeback role in “Sin City.” Again, it was with a little help from his friends—in that case Robert Rodriguez, the director whom he’d worked with on “Once Upon A Time In Mexico.” Rodriguez had steered him toward Frank Miller, who was directing “Sin City” based on his graphic novel.

Just before “Sin City” was released, Mickey and I were talking in his suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. He had his chihuahua-terrier mutt Loki with him. I haven’t seen Mickey since then, and poor Loki has gone to canine heaven. But five years ago I said maybe, just maybe, if you gave Mickey half an Irishman’s chance he’d be back with something great. He did that with “The Wrestler.” Now he’s having a good time, and he deserves to let the bad times go. Like all of America, he is trying to forget the past and promising to hold steady for the future.

But from the haunted look in Mickey’s eyes it’s plain that he knows the past is never really dead, and as William Faulkner once wrote… it isn’t even past.