Sunday, September 14, 2014

Johnny Handsome

This is awkward. In Johnny Handsome (1989), Mickey Rourke plays a deformed criminal with a face that makes him look like the love-child of the Elephant Man and one of the pig people from The Twilight Zone who undergoes plastic surgery that makes him handsome, offering him a new chance at life. You know, Mickey Rourke, the boyishly handsome star of the 80s who got his face pulverized after he quit acting to become a boxer and the plastic surgery to correct it was botched, among other questionable life decisions he made? It's not life imitating art so much as life being cruelly ironic.

Directed by Walter Hill, Johnny Handsome is either too much of a B-movie or not enough like one. It is the story of how Rourke's character, John Hedly, who is mockingly referred to as Johnny Handsome for his visage, is betrayed by a couple of cohorts during a robbery, goes to prison, is offered a chance at rehabilitation through the surgery to give him a new face, is paroled, gets a job, falls in love with a nice girl, is hounded by a suspicious cop, and hatches a scheme to get back at those who betrayed him.

The cast is impressive. Not only is there Rourke, there's also Scott Wilson, Lance Henriksen, Ellen Barkin, Elizabeth McGovern, Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker, and a personal favorite of mine, Peter Jason, veteran of many a John Carpenter film who turns up in a small role. I can't really find fault with any of the performances, except Rourke is nearly unintelligible under all that makeup and Henriksen, who has given many creepy and menacing performances, plays a character who is a bit too small-time and weak to be the target of Johnny's revenge. This is the type of story that calls for a big, bad heavy to bring down, and Henriksen, with his sleeveless shirts and earring, doesn't fit the bill.

Johnny Handsome falls into the realm of a latter-day film noir: the crooked lowlifes, the shadows, the grimy streets, the cigarettes, and the utter absence of any redemption or salvation for our flawed protagonist. Hill pumps up the action scenes, giving he film a glossy, 80s shine as well. Hill also loves his closeups, those tights shots of his actors' faces as they lean right at the screen. Why? I'm not sure; early on, it suggests Johnny's point-of-view as doctors, cops, and others get up in his face, but the technique does get distracting after a while.

At the heart of the movie is this moral question: with a new face and a new name, is Johnny really a new person, or is he, as Freeman's detective asserts, still rotten underneath it all? Can he really wipe the slate clean and start over? The conflict hinges on whether Johnny will put his life of crime behind him or get sucked back into it to pursue his revenge.

Unfortunately, this plot element, like much of the narrative, feels truncated and rushed. Johnny is never shown being conflicted about his actions; he's out for revenge, Rourke and Hill treat Johnny as a bit of a closed-off recluse, a man so used to pain and contempt from the world around him that he keeps his emotions under a figurative mask. That's a logical decision to be sure, but in this genre, where our main character's soul must be on the line, it's creates a distance between the hero and audience and makes it hard for us to be moved by his plight.

The film can really be divided into parts. The first deals with Johnny's arrest and surgery, and the second concentrates on his revenge. The first part feels perfunctory as it moves from scene to scene. I would have appreciated more scenes of Johnny in the criminal underworld with his old face, more depiction of his relationship more with his friend Mikey, and show us how he lives; instead, that's all done by the 10-minute mark. The revenge portion of the film is reminiscent of dozens of other film noirs and revenge stories; the only twist here is Johnny's former associates don't recognize him with the new face. Everything moves along so quickly, there's little time to establish that dark, seedy atmosphere so crucial to a film noir.

As I said above, Johnny Handsome either needed to be more like a B-Movie or less like one. The B-Movie element would have focused on the revenge angle, been more stylized, and probably resembled what Rourke would later go on to do in Sin City, playing the ugly man in an ugly city. The film also could have downplayed the revenge instead and focused on this character trying to create a new identity for himself and reluctantly, gradually being pulled back into crime. Together, the revenge story feels cliche and the character feels shortchanged.

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