Title: Johnny Handsome (1989)
Director: Walter Hill
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Elizabeth McGovern, Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Lance Henriksen
I did an article a while back called 16 of the Top ‘Revengiest’Revenge Movies; in it I included these films where something awful happens to the main character, but then things turn around and eventually the main character gets his or her revenge, usually in pretty gruesome ways. I didn’t include the film I’ll be reviewing today because I had not seen it in such a long time. When I first saw Johnny Handsome I must’ve been about 13; all I remembered about Johnny Handsome was its basic premise and the fact that I liked the story a lot. There’s something gratifying about revenge tales, they always start out with something awful happening to the good guy of the film, then in the end whamo! That sweet, sweet revenge. The bad guys get what they deserved and the good guy gets his revenge. Though in this sense, Walter Hill’s Johnny Handsome is a bit different than most revenge films, Johnny isn’t your typical good guy, he’s actually a crook.
In Johnny Handsome we meet John Sedley, moments before he pulls off a diamond heist. John is not just any crook though, he is a mastermind in pulling off robberies. Also, his face is severely disfigured due to an anomaly in his genes. His deformity doesn’t stop him from doing what he has to do. Johnny is pulling off this diamond heist with the help of two individuals. One is a tomboyish lady called Sunny Boyd (Ellen Barkin) and the other a low life called Rafe Garrett (Lance Henriksen). The three stick up the diamond store, and as we might expect in this kind of movie, things get ugly. The cops are called upon and at the last minute Rafe and Sunny decide to double cross Johnny and shoot him and the owner of the store, their idea is to keep the loot to themselves. Rafe and Sunny leave John for dead, unfortunately for them, John doesn’t die. Instead, he is rescued by the police and taken to a hospital where he is given the opportunity to jumpstart his life. You see, the doctors want to perform a surgery on him that could give him a normal face again. Will he take this opportunity to begin again? Or will he go back to his old ways?
It occurred to me that Johnny Handsome plays out a lot like a ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ story where the main character has a duality about him. He has his good natured/kind side, and he’s got his evil side, which he is at battle with. Johnny used to be a crook, because his looks led him to become an outcast, ridiculed and made fun of all his life. But what happens when he gets his face back and he no longer looks like a monster? What kind of battle will be waged with the demons inside of him? This is what is at the center of this story. Johnny is even given a chance to fall in love with a beautiful woman, and lead a normal life, unfortunately, his former life calls him. Revenge calls him. Should he heed its call?
This is a Walter Hill film, so it’s not just any director we’re talking about here. This is the guy behind such action packed 80’s classics as 48 Hours (1982), Extreme Prejudice (1987) and Red Heat (1988). Hill’s a director whose films are very male oriented, he makes films for guys to holler and cheer at, they are about tough dudes, shoot outs, guns and explosions; tough dudes and sexy ladies. This time around things are a bit different though; not that Johnny Handsome doesn’t have its fare share of action and shoot outs, but the story is told in a more film noir style. It’s darker, grittier, more character driven. The film starts with a shootout and ends with a shootout, the middle of the film is the whole process of Johnny going from looking like a monster, to looking like Mickey Rourke before he turned to boxing. Funny how in real life, Rourke know looks like Johnny before the operation, oh the irony of life!
Hill invests a good amount of time getting you to know Johnny, getting you to feel for him. Rourke does a good job here, he plays the tormented soul, you feel like he’s the Frankenstein monster or something; a misunderstood creature who’s just looking for some love. At first, when we first meet Johnny he looks like a deformed monster, similar to the character that Eric Stoltz played in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Mask (1985), someone deformed because of genetic defects. The character of Johnny also reminded me of Marv, another beat up character that Rourke played in Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005). During the first half of the film, Rourke plays his character through heavy amounts of makeup. But half way through the film, after the operation, he transforms, and then we get the real Mickey Rourke, the mind boggles at how much Rourke has changed through the years! The rest of the film is populated by an excellent cast of supporting characters. Ellen Barkin has always been great at playing these rough, tom boyish ladies, on this show she plays a woman with no moral values whatsoever, she hangs out in bars, being a whore, stealing, killing and double crossing. She hangs out with low lives like Henriksen’s Rafe Garrett. Henriksen has always been great at playing villains, here he plays the main baddy, not much of a stretch acting wise, but he gets the job done. Rounding things up are Morgan Freeman as a cop who knows Johnny’s true nature, and Forest Whitaker as the doctor who operates on Johnny. Whitaker plays the guy who wants to give Johnny that second chance to improve himself, the guy with hopes that we can all change.
Johnny Handsome is a very underrated Walter Hill film. The film didn’t hit it big in theaters, in fact, it was a downright flop. It cost 20 million to make but only raked in 7.2 at the box office. I guess the film really didn’t connect with audiences for some reason. A pity because the film is a good revenge tale, and it has an excellent cast, this is the kind of film that makes you wonder why exactly did it slip through the cracks? Maybe it was due to the fact that it had some hefty competition at the box office. Upon it’s release it went up against Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989), which by the way was the #1 film that week, and it also went up against Sea of Love (1989) which starred Al Pacino. Also a bunch of successful family comedies like Uncle Buck (1989) and Parenthood (1989), so I guess a dark, brooding film about a deformed dude wasn’t at the top of anybodies list that weekend. But whatever, those that know, know; and on my book, this is a solid revenge tale with good performances and a dark, grimy look. If you’re ever in the mood for something like that, then this is the film for you.
Rating: 4 out of 5