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Walter Hill's undervalued neo-noir.
on 31 March 2014
Johnny Handsome is directed by Walter Hill and adapted to screenplay by Ken Friedman from the novel "The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome" written by John Godey. It stars Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Elizabeth McGovern, Lance Henriksen, Forest Whitaker, Morgan Freeman and Scott Wilson. Music is by Ry Cooder and cinematography by Matthew F. Leonetti.
John Sedley (Rourke), AKA: Johnny Handsome, has a severely disfigured face, when he and his only real friend are double-crossed by two accomplices during a robbery, Johnny is sent to prison and his life reaches a new low. However, hope springs in the form of Dr. Steven Fisher (Whitaker), a pioneering plastic surgeon who offers to give Johnny surgery that would give him a normal face as he attempts to integrate back into society. With a new face making him unrecognisable, there is scope to enact revenge on the two people who killed his best friend and had him put in prison...
Walter Hill knows his film noir, anyone who has seen The Driver knows this. Here for Johnny Handsome, Hill takes a lot of the fantastical elements of noir and dresses it up admirably as a violent revenge thriller. A box office flop and something of a kicking post for big hitting critics of the late 1980s, it's a film that now can be seen as being very much in tune with its influences.
The charges of it being too bonkers, too violent and too much of a "B" movie homage just don't add up, because what is on offer is good solid meaty neo-noir cinema. A protagonist with an affliction, medical shenanigans, hyper femme fatale, over the top villain and a stoic and sarcastic gumshoe type copper. All of which operate in a sweaty and luridly coloured New Orleans. Add in Hill's eye for aggressive action sequences and it's neo a go-go.
Hill gets strong performances from his cast, ensuring emotional bonds are not over egged and a clamour for sympathy and understanding kept to a bearable level by the actors playing the "good" guys "n" dolls. While giving Henriksen and Barkin licence to sizzle with sinister glee is astute and perfectly in tune with the material on the page. Leonetti's photography has the requisite pulpy noirishness to it, and the familiar twangs of Ry Cooder are never a bad thing in a Walter Hill movie.
It's not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but those complaining about missed opportunities regarding rehabilitation - or that the liberal doctor turns out to be clinically wrong in his reform beliefs - really are missing the point or unaware of the world where something like Johnny Handsome lives. From the kinetic misery at film's start, to the "ever so in tune with film noir" finale, Johnny Handsome is well worth a look by anyone interested in noir's updated version. 7/10