The Best Movie You Never Saw: Johnny Handsome

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.


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 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.


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


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


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.


“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.
Source: Philly.comJoBlo.com



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