Johnny Handsome (1989) dir. Walter Hill
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Morgan Freeman, Lance Hendrikson
One of the great directors of the 70’s and 80’s is the muscular Walter Hill, once a protégé of the most muscular of all directors Sam Peckinpah. Hill's career was jumpstarted when he wrote Peckinpah’s great heist flick, “The Getaway” (1972), and from then developed a career influenced by the great master of beautiful violence and masculine fury. "Johnny Handsome" was one of the last good films from the man, a neo-noir/updated Western with a surprisingly sentimental touch.
Mickey Rourke plays John Sedley, also known as Johnny Handsome on account of his facial deformations from birth. Since his broken youth, Johnny has used his innate intelligence for crime and become a sought-after crack heist expert. In the opening, he’s recruited by his lifelong friend and mentor Mikey (Scott Wilson) into doing a bank job with a couple of smarmy hoods, Sunny and Rafe (Ellen Barkin and Lance Hendrickson). The duo indeed double-cross them, leaving Mikey dead and Johnny in prison.
While in the joint a kindly doctor (Forest Whitaker), looking to test his new facial reconstructive procedures, offers Johnny a chance at freedom in exchange for being his guinea pig. The procedure works and Johnny is actually turned 'handsome'. Once out he gets a job working the New Orleans shipyard and even catches the eye of a comely office gal (Elizabeth McGovern). Johnny’s desire for revenge eats away at his soul and decides to take action against Sunny and Rafe no matter what the cost.
Walter Hill was the master of close quarters action, and in this film, as usual, the action bristles with anger and intensity. From "The Driver" to “The Long Riders” to "Extreme Prejudice" Walter Hill loves to stage a good heist scene, but you won't find any Jason Statham tongue-in-cheek wittiness here.
The film, and in particular the opening heist scene, is aided by two of Hill's frequent collaborators, editor Freeman Davies and composer Ry Cooder. The opening credit and heist scenes have the same tight montage-style rhythm which Sam Peckinpah birthed in "The Wild Bunch". Davies' quick cuts to lines of dialogue and moments of action are punctuated with Ry Cooder's distinct blues-inspired slide guitar.
While there's elements of a neo-noir, Hill films the story with a particularly Western genre sensibility. Mickey Rourke’s soft-spoken, big-stick carrying protagonist is lifted right out of the Western template. Equal parts Shane, Tom Destry, Randolph Scott, Johnny Handsome is a classic aloof antihero.
Without being misogynistic Hill uses women as points of conflict for Handsome, pilons for him to maneuver around to get to the end of the journey. Johnny is heroic and distant, a gentle lover and protective, but also too stubborn to accept a new way of life, a distinctly male viewpoint into human tragedy, which Westerns typically explore. When he has to reconcile crime with his lover, he chooses the score and the need to avenge his best friend’s death.
Unfortunately the new DVD reissue from Lions Gate is full screen, and available in standard definition only. But the form doesn't reduce the quality of the content, so try and find it. Enjoy.