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The Best Movie You Never Saw: Johnny Handsome

May. 9, 2013by:

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be examining JOHNNY HANDSOME, a 1989 crime film that failed at the box office upon initial release, but has gained a significant following throughout the years and become well recognized for it’s noir qualities and seedy characters, as well as a story that dives into the heart of human nature with an ironic twist.

THE STORY:

Career criminal John Sedley was born with a disfigured face that has plagued him his entire life. He uses his appearance to blend into the shadows of his criminal life, but after a double cross during a robbery, Sedley is sent to prison where he’s given the opportunity to have an operation that will fix his face and rehabilitate him back into the real world. Sedley accepts the offer and returns to society a new man on the outside, but can he change the man on the inside, especially when the allure of revenge awaits?

THE PLAYERS:

The film is directed by Walter Hill (48 HOURS, EXTREME PREJUDICE, TRESPASS) with a screenplay by Ken Friedman, based on the novel “The Three World’s of Johnny Handsome” by Jon Godey (THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123). Mickey Rourke stars as the titular character, while veteran actors Lance Henrikson and Ellen Barkin play the film’s double-crossing villains. It co-stars Elizabeth McGovern as the love interest, Morgan Freeman as a detective, Forest Whitaker as a doctor, and Scott Wilson (best known these days as Herschel from The Walking Dead) as Johnny’s partner in crime.

THE HISTORY:

JOHNNY HANDSOME was originally developed with Al Pacino in mind to star (Willem Dafoe was also offered the role, but turned it down), but the actor felt that the script was too “B-movie” for him to commit and exited the project.  In fact, director Walter Hill turned down the gig four times before committing.

“No studio wanted to make it, and I didn't think any actor would be willing to play it. I wasn't sure the audience would buy the gimmick of the plastic surgery. It's an old-fashioned melodramatic device.” – Walter Hill

WHY IT’S GREAT:

JOHNNY HANDSOME is one of the film’s I watched growing up that really grabbed me. Walter Hill’s style, which is sharp, fast, and gritty, is ever-present in this film with quick, unexpected cuts, booming action, and a noir-ish tone that makes it almost like an updated gangster film. The score by Ry Cooder, a veteran Blues guitarist who has done most of Hill’s films, is an amazing mixture of atmosphere and Cajun rock, blending in perfectly with the world that Johnny lives in.

Rourke was coming off hits like 9 ½ WEEKS, BARFLY, and ANGEL HEART and had a reputation as a formidable actor during this time. It was shortly after JOHNNY HANDSOME was released that he detoured into boxing and dependency issues that, ironically, would play hell on his real-life face before re-emerging on the Hollywood scene with films like SIN CITY and THE WRESTLER.

“...I found an actor who could play Johnny and not make it risible. Someone who understood the pitfalls of the thing. The main thing is that motion pictures have conditioned us to expect psychological realism. This is a drama in a different category. It's about moral choices." – Walter Hill

In JOHNNY HANDSOME, Rourke shows all of the intensity and gravitas that he would later bring to some of his more memorable roles in the second chapter of his career, showing a wide range of emotions, most notably during the scene where his new face is revealed to him for the first time. It’s a scene that makes you wish Rourke had stayed on course, just to see what he could’ve done in the years he spent away from Hollywood.

The supporting cast is an especially great lot, with Morgan Freeman playing the cop that firmly believes that Johnny will revert to his criminal ways, Elizabeth McGovern as the love interest who believes he won’t, and Forest Whitaker as the doctor who hopes he’ll succeed. Gravelly-voiced Lance Henrikson and veteran actress Ellen Barkin are perfect as the film’s dangerous villains. They are scary not just because they’re bad, but because they have no moral center at all. They are the embodiment of ugly, violent criminals.

What I love most about JOHNNY HANDSOME is that it toys with the whole “what if?” scenario and asks the question of whether or not your appearance can really change who you are. You want Johnny to succeed, fall in love, and even get his revenge, but at the same time he’s lived his entire life as a criminal, which can’t be erased with surgery. Down to the very last scene you hope that he can somehow pull it off, but there’s the notion of irony and reality that are fighting against him, along with the baggage of his true nature that he simply can't shake (Check out Roger Ebert's review here, which I feel is a film he really "got").

"This is very reminiscent of the kind of film noir they made in the '40’s. You have the doomed character, and audiences back then were more comfortable with it.” – Walter Hill

MEMORABLE SCENE:

The reveal of Johnny’s new face is a testament to Rourke’s acting ability and one of the most affecting scenes of the film. In a movie that revolves around what you see, this scene shows more with expression than words ever could.

PARTING SHOT:

“I'd like to see it have a chance to find an audience that will be interested. Some people like the movie and others are really offended by it. That's fine with me. I like movies that stir things up a little." – Walter Hill

JOHNNY HANDSOME is available on DVD/Blu-Ray. Order here!

Extra Tidbit: Another film of Rourke's that I kind of love is Year of the Dragon. Directed by Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter), it's overlong and a tad indulgent, but a powerful, epic crime film that's long been an underdog.
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1:28PM on 05/16/2013

Good flick

Nice shout out to Hill who you could actually put up more than half his filmography in this new column. This ones is not his best but not one to miss either, I remember catching this loads of time on the TV in my youth. Barkin and Hendrikson were my favorite part playing total evil badasses.
Nice shout out to Hill who you could actually put up more than half his filmography in this new column. This ones is not his best but not one to miss either, I remember catching this loads of time on the TV in my youth. Barkin and Hendrikson were my favorite part playing total evil badasses.
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10:48PM on 05/09/2013

Just watched the clip... I'd forgotten about Forrest Whittaker's beard.

Gonna have to find this one on Blu-ray now.

Cool, look what I just found:
[link]
Gonna have to find this one on Blu-ray now.

Cool, look what I just found:
[link]
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+1
7:28PM on 05/09/2013

Saw it back in the day..

And it's one of my all time faves. Defintely agree, this and Angel Heart back to back.. cool idea. Really want to see Mickey back doing this kind of stuff.
And it's one of my all time faves. Defintely agree, this and Angel Heart back to back.. cool idea. Really want to see Mickey back doing this kind of stuff.
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7:23PM on 05/09/2013

Saw this at the cinema back in the day...

This and Angel Heart make a hell of a double feature.
This and Angel Heart make a hell of a double feature.
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4:10PM on 05/09/2013
Great movie and love this new column! You should cover Val Kilmer's Real Genius, one of my favorite movies "you never saw" from the 80's.
Great movie and love this new column! You should cover Val Kilmer's Real Genius, one of my favorite movies "you never saw" from the 80's.
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4:44PM on 05/09/2013
Coincidentally, I love Real Genius. Great suggestion!
Coincidentally, I love Real Genius. Great suggestion!
3:11PM on 05/09/2013

Most Excellent!

I love this movie! It's my third favorite Walter Hill movie, and my favorite Mix key Rourke performance of all time!
I love this movie! It's my third favorite Walter Hill movie, and my favorite Mix key Rourke performance of all time!
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2:59PM on 05/09/2013

Back when Rourke was at the top of his game.

You guys could write similar articles for Angel Heart, Year of the Dragon, Barfly, Pope of Greenwich Village, and Diner. A couple of those are slightly more [link] (especially Diner) but none of them are exactly considered mandatory classics and some of them should be. He was a terrific actor and The Wrestler proved he still can be (as well as his brief cameo in Sean Penn's movie with Jack Nicholson, The Pledge) but I'm not sure anyone has killed their own career as much as Rourke. He swore it
You guys could write similar articles for Angel Heart, Year of the Dragon, Barfly, Pope of Greenwich Village, and Diner. A couple of those are slightly more [link] (especially Diner) but none of them are exactly considered mandatory classics and some of them should be. He was a terrific actor and The Wrestler proved he still can be (as well as his brief cameo in Sean Penn's movie with Jack Nicholson, The Pledge) but I'm not sure anyone has killed their own career as much as Rourke. He swore it wouldn't happen again after The Wrestler but he was a dick to numerous movie-makers and turned down Seven Psychopaths because they wouldn't pay him enough money. He never learned his lesson.
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4:47PM on 05/09/2013
Year of the Dragon is a definite contender. The others are good, too. YOD feels like a Michael Mann crime film to me. It's so damn raw when it could've been completely vanilla.
Year of the Dragon is a definite contender. The others are good, too. YOD feels like a Michael Mann crime film to me. It's so damn raw when it could've been completely vanilla.
2:45PM on 05/09/2013

Damn, I'd forgotten about this flick!

My favourite scene in this movie is when Ellen Barkin walks in a room and Lance Henrikson pulls a gun on her. She just walks past him as if she's bulletproof - freakin' badass.
My favourite scene in this movie is when Ellen Barkin walks in a room and Lance Henrikson pulls a gun on her. She just walks past him as if she's bulletproof - freakin' badass.
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+2
1:44PM on 05/09/2013
Didn't this really happen to Rourke in real life, only in reverse?
Didn't this really happen to Rourke in real life, only in reverse?
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12:58PM on 05/09/2013

Excellent pulp crime movie

Walter Hill made the most masculine movies of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Ry Cooder's music could give a slight piece of entertainment a mythical quality. The cast of this movie was about as perfect as one could hope for, with Rourke supported by some of the best actors of the '80s plus a couple whose best work was still to come. It's kind of a sad irony that Rourke turned out the way he did.
Walter Hill made the most masculine movies of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Ry Cooder's music could give a slight piece of entertainment a mythical quality. The cast of this movie was about as perfect as one could hope for, with Rourke supported by some of the best actors of the '80s plus a couple whose best work was still to come. It's kind of a sad irony that Rourke turned out the way he did.
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10:50AM on 05/09/2013

This Really Is An Underrated Film

Johnny Handsome is a really good neo-noir. I haven't seen it in a looooong time. But it is a really good film. As is Year of the Dragon. I have been a fan of both these films. Glad I am not the only one.
Johnny Handsome is a really good neo-noir. I haven't seen it in a looooong time. But it is a really good film. As is Year of the Dragon. I have been a fan of both these films. Glad I am not the only one.
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10:39AM on 05/09/2013
Walter Hill used to be SO the man. This was already on my list. STILL haven't seen Extreme Prejudice...
Walter Hill used to be SO the man. This was already on my list. STILL haven't seen Extreme Prejudice...
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12:11PM on 05/09/2013
You got to see this. Extrem Prejudice is like "the Wild Bunch" on steroids with buckets full of 80´s machismo and a whole lot of blood an bullets.
You got to see this. Extrem Prejudice is like "the Wild Bunch" on steroids with buckets full of 80´s machismo and a whole lot of blood an bullets.
2:01PM on 05/09/2013
Yeah, Extreme Prejudice is definitely Hill's love letter to Peckinpah. And Nick Nolte at his most badass.
Yeah, Extreme Prejudice is definitely Hill's love letter to Peckinpah. And Nick Nolte at his most badass.
1:24PM on 05/16/2013
I echo that, see "Extreme Predjudice" right now, it also had one of the most badass 80's cast i can think of; Nolte, Powers Booth, Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown, William Forsthyth and Rip 'god damn' Torn tearing the place up.
I echo that, see "Extreme Predjudice" right now, it also had one of the most badass 80's cast i can think of; Nolte, Powers Booth, Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown, William Forsthyth and Rip 'god damn' Torn tearing the place up.
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