Johnny Handsome

In Johnny Handsome, Mickey Rourke takes his propensity for disfigurement to a new level. You thought he was ugly in Barfly, or Angel Heart? That was relative comeliness. In Johnny Handsome, Rourke plays a lowlife criminal whose face is unspeakably deformed. He’s so repellent he’s contemptuously known as Johnny Handsome.

When Johnny is double-crossed during a robbery and his best friend killed, he’s packed off to prison, a two-time loser. But then a doctor (Forest Whitaker), a specialist in reconstructive surgery, sees Johnny’s face, and he puts Johnny under the knife to try to make a new man of him. At least he fashions a new, socially acceptable face, but can a new face change the man?

As Johnny Handsome finds out, he must remain true to who he is. The second half of the film shows his revenge against the two sleazeballs who sold him out (deliciously and dementedly played by Ellen Barkin, also on sizzling view these days in Sea of Love, and Lance Henriksen). This part of the movie isn’t quite as intriguing as the character study of the first half, because it’s mostly clockwork action.

But action is the specialty of director Walter Hill (Red Heat), and he can bring this kind of thing off as well as anybody. Hill also glories in the blue-collar New Orleans locations and the tough, epigrammatic dialogue. When Barkin sizes up the new Johnny Handsome—she doesn’t recognize him—she leans in and leers, “I’ll tell you sumpin’, sweetheart: Lookin’ at you gives me some baaad thoughts.”

In the end, Johnny Handsome comes close to being a real thug’s tragedy. It’s got seediness and flavorful characters, including Johnny’s post-makeover girlfriend (Elizabeth McGovern), who isn’t quite the goody-two-shoes she seems to be, and Johnny’s nemesis, a police lieutenant (Morgan Freeman) who is merciless in his harassment of Johnny—or is it merciful?

Rourke does well with his role. The scene in which his bandages come off and he peers into a mirror is one of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen in a movie this year.

Finally the movie and his performance come up short, because there isn’t really enough of Johnny to provide for truly tragic dimensions; he becomes submerged in the revenge story. That story is a pip, nevertheless, and Johnny Handsome is a fascinating brew.

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1989

Still waiting for the Johnny Handsome cult to gather. I guess the film doesn’t quite work, but Hill gets moments like nobody else, and Rourke is pretty remarkable.

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