Johnny Handsome

August 10, 2012

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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The Big Easy

April 1, 2011

Industry insiders assure us that the Hollywood movie of tomorrow will have far less sexually oriented material—a reaction to the conservative climate and the fear of AIDS, supposedly. Which means we’d better enjoy the steam heat in films such as No Way Out and The Big Easy while we can.

Actually, there’s not even any explicit nudity in The Big Easy (the title’s not what you think—it’s the nickname of New Orleans). But the wonderfully sexy atmosphere conjured up by director Jim McBride and stars Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin far outstrips many more graphic films.

Quaid plays a New Orleans detective who has built much of his career on casual kickbacks; indeed corruption is pervasive in the department. New Orleans saints they ain’t. That’s why district attorney Barkin is suddenly hanging around. She’s going to put the bad cops away, even to the point of prosecuting Quaid, a good guy who’s just gotten lazy.

But the film wastes no time in getting to its more delectable concerns, namely putting Quaid and Barkin in close proximity and allowing them to melt the nearby wallpaper. There’s one sex scene that’s erotic and funny, the more so for being interrupted by a police emergency—Quaid has to dash out into the night and investigate a murder. “How long does a murder take?” Barkin asks, hopefully.

If there is logic to the world, The Big Easy is the film that springs these two fine actors into more recognizable prominence. Quaid has never been so assured before (and he’s very adept at his Cajun accent). Barkin, the sad-eyed wife in Diner and the homewrecking sister in Desert Bloom, is immediate and reactive as always. And they look very good together.

Director McBride’s stock should rise, too. He started out making underground films, and The Big Easy and his underappreciated Breathless are his only mainstream features. His sense of style is often breathless.

Daniel Petrie Jr.’s screenplay was originally set in Chicago, but McBride had the good sense to move it to New Orleans, a much fresher setting, where the corruption seems as liquid as the humidity. As with the Los Angeles McBride created in Breathless, the city is very much a participant in the drama, and has probably never been more vividly realized.

There’s some business about gangland murders that Quaid is solving, but this is almost impossible to follow, except that it eventually comes back to Barkin’s investigation. Ned Beatty plays another corrupted cop, and the late Charles Ludlam contributes a witty performance as a defense attorney (“the man that got the governor acquitted,” someone says admiringly).

McBride doesn’t pay that much attention to the difficult storyline, and neither should the audience. There’s simply too much pleasure to be taken in the seductive atmosphere, the Cajun music, the spice of the two main characters.

First published in the Herald, August 1987

This was a nice movie to champion back then. I always thought it was a great example of the party movie, the kind of film where it didn’t matter much whether it all hung together because the sense of it being a traveling party was so strong and sustained. Quaid and Barkin did go on to bigger things, although the Quaid-McBride Great Balls of Fire turned out to be a rather large letdown.