Mickey Rourke in Johnny Handsome (1989)


(director: Walter Hill; screenwriters: Ken Friedman/based on the novel ”The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome” by John Godey; cinematographer: Matthew F. Leonetti; editor: Freeman Davies; music: Ry Cooder; cast: Mickey Rourke (Johnny Handsome/John Sedley), Ellen Barkin (Sunny), Elizabeth McGovern (Donna McCarty), Morgan Freeman (Lieutenant Drones), Forest Whitaker (Dr. Resher), Lance Henriksen (Rafe), Scott Wilson (Mikey), J. W. Smith (Larry), David Schramm (Vic Dumask), Peter Jason (Mr Bonet), Jeff Meek (Earl); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Charles Roven; Tri-Star Pictures; 1989)

“The more ridiculous it becomes, the better looking it gets.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A neo-noir revenge thriller adapted from John Godey’s novel The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome and written by Ken Friedman. Walter Hill (”The Long Riders”/”48 Hours”/”The Driver”) deals with a promising premise in a violent and moody way, but never gets things to cohere into anything more than a doleful mess. Yet the more ridiculous it becomes, the better looking it gets–moving into territory that has a white-trash Elephant Man, who is so scarred inside and out that he lets his need for revenge get the better of him. The noirish mood set is helped considerably by the seedy New Orleans setting.

Johnny Handsome (Mickey Rourke) is a small-time career criminal who is an outcast, even in the underworld, because his face is hideously deformed. His only friend Mikey (Scott Wilson) begs him to plan a stickup of the Prestige Jewelry store because he’s about to lose the bar he just bought and needs dough fast. The armed robbery is violent and gang members Sunny (Ellen Barkin) and Rafe (Lance Henriksen) double-cross Johnny by making off with the valuables and abandoning him at the crime scene to take the rap, while killing Mikey. Johnny does five years hard time in Angola without dropping a dime, and after being hospitalized over a contract hit that leaves him badly bruised do-gooder surgeon, Dr. Resher (Forest Whitaker), opts to do plastic surgery on the state’s tab believing recidivism can be related to physical deformity. The operation is a success and Johnny now has a new face, a new ID and supposedly a new life. The good doctor believes the disadvantaged lad will now prosper as a good citizen and have no need to turn to crime again, and hooks him up with a construction job at the Commodore Shipyard. The cynical veteran New Orleans police Lieutenant Drones (Morgan Freeman), who investigated the jewelry store robbery and has a history with Johnny, believes a leopard can’t change his spots and keeps tabs on him, suspecting he plans to get revenge on the new bar owner Rafe who murdered Mikey. Meanwhile Johnny begins a romance with nice girl Donna (Elizabeth McGovern), who works as an office secretary in the accounting department. In this kind of sleazy pic she’s considered a nice girl, even though she’s cooking the books for ex-boyfriend shipyard worker Earl (Jeff Meek). This beauty steals small items at the shipyard and blackmails Donna to keep cooking the books despite the risk to her. But that stops when Johnny puts a knife to Earl’s throat to change his mind.

Johnny’s revenge plan is too absurdly dumb to believe, as it has him in his new disguise getting the old gang together to rob the Commodore Shipyard. Predictably it ends in a bloody climax with the hoods settling old scores and the smiling Lieutenant pleased with himself that he was right that Johnny is rotten to the core in the inside and that the bleeding heart liberal doctor was wrong.

If things didn’t get distracted on a violent revenge course and preachy as a criminological lecture, this handsome urban crime film wouldn’t have been so disfigured and might have done some justice to rebirth as something to be optimistic about in rehabilitation.