Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Johnny Handsome

Walter Hill's Johnny Handsome has so much going for it that I just can't fault it when it trips ten feet from the finish line and wretchedly crawls across the finish line. It's both his and Mickey Rourke's last film of the 80s, and a sort of last gasp for the both of them, though Rourke finally climbed back on top with Sin City and of course The Wrestler. Rourke alone should alert you to the necessity to watch this film regardless of its overall quality, as the man quite simply walked away with the 80s as far as I'm concerned.

Rourke stars as the titular character (née Johnny Sedley), a small-time career criminal who ends up on the bad side of a botched heist and spends the rest of the film plotting his revenge against the people who sold him out. He got his nickname due to the horrible facial disfigurement he's suffered since birth, scars that both swell his head and force him to speak with a lisp. Later in the film, Johnny recounts how, as a child, a young boy ripped off his jack-o-lantern mask on Halloween and said "Johnny don't need no mask," and Johnny responded by beating the poor kid senseless. Rourke brings all his tortured soul to the part, and only makes this creature even more wretched and pitiable.

An older man named Mikey looks after Johnny and includes him in his robberies. For a particularly big heist, Mikey recruits the help of two pieces of street trash, Sunny and Rafe (Ellen Barkin and Lance Henriksen, both of whom play just about the best scumbags you could ever hope to find) in order to pull things off successfully. The robbery goes bad, and Rafe ends up killing Mikey, while Johnny gets captured and sent to prison.

While there, a Lt. Drones (Morgan Freeman) mocks him and his looks but, after an inmate stabbing leaves Johnny in the hospital, a doctor (Forest Whitaker) takes pity on the man. Believing that Johnny's life choices are the direct result of the shame he feels from his disfigurement, he offers to reconstruct Johnny's face and to hire a speech pathologist to rid him of his lisp in order to provide a fresh start. After a few weeks of painful surgeries, we see Mickey Rourke's beautiful face freed from all those prosthetics.

Soon Johnny gets paroled and finds a job and even starts going out with a girl who loves him (Elizabeth McGovern), but there's only one thing on his mind. Drones correctly guesses that Sunny and Rafe would never recognize the new Johnny, and sure enough he hatches a plan to win the couple's trust with another robbery that would get him close to his foes. He even toys with them at first to make sure they don't see it coming; "There's something familiar about him," wonders Sunny after Johnny tells the two that he knows them.

For such a short film, it plays out with a great deal of tension and suspense. Until the ending that is. I won't give it away, but some characters suddenly get smart while others don't think at all, and the short length suddenly becomes very, very apparent. The film runs barely over 90 minutes, and the final bit unfolds after an hour and a half has passed. I can't really say why the ending doesn't stick with me other than the fact that it seems to thoroughly clichéd as to be interchangeable with any number of "guys trying to break out of lives of crime" stories. Hell, Mickey Rourke himself built his career in the 80s on films that had endings too similar to this.

Nevertheless, the film remains a must-see on the basis of its fantastic opening heist sequence and the acting performances of Barkin, Henriksen and Rourke. Rourke in particular knocks it right out of the park; he puts so much pain into the role that it breaks through even the prosthetics and only magnifies on his actual face. I think the film was written with any actor in mind, but when Rourke took the part and made it his own suddenly the short running time became noticeable. For my money, his portrayal here is in his top five performances, and for that reason alone you should track this above-average piece of 80s noir down; I believe the DVD is being reissued soon anyway, so you're in luck.

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