Severely-deformed petty crook John Sedley (Mickey Rourke), cruelly nicknamed ‘Johnny Handsome’, accompanies his one true friend on a jewel heist that goes horribly wrong. Double-crossed by his accomplices, criminal couple Sunny Boyd (Ellen Barkin) and Rafe Garrett (Lance Henriksen) who murder his friend, Johnny winds up with a lengthy jail sentence. Inside prison, Johnny attracts the interest of Doctor Steven Fisher (Forest Whitaker), a surgeon looking to pioneer experimental cosmetic surgery as a form of rehabilitation for criminals. With nothing to lose, Johnny happily serves as Dr. Fisher’s guinea pig and emerges transformed into a handsome man. But though Johnny is released to start his second chance at a better life, New Orleans police detective Lieutenant Drones (Morgan Freeman) remains certain that what he’s really after is a shot at revenge.
Johnny Handsome is a hard film to get a handle on. Coming after the dumb actioner Red Heat (1988), Walter Hill likely set out to craft something more substantial and ambitious but was seemingly indecisive as to what form that should take. Consequently the film emerged an oddball, inconsistent hybrid equal parts earnest character driven drama and cockeyed homage to old B-movies. Adapted from the novel, “The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome” by John Godey - pseudonym for Morton Freedgood, the author of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) - this was among several flops that, along with some unfortunate life choices, derailed Mickey Rourke’s once-promising career. Which is a shame because, regardless of the quality of the movie, his performance in the first half is quite remarkable. Buried under heavy prosthetic makeup, Rourke wrings a great deal of pathos with a characterisation that foreshadows his more celebrated turn in Sin City (2005). After the plastic surgery however, Johnny emerges a more sedate, strangely less compelling character, like someone from a different movie.
Things open like gangbusters. Ellen Barkin and Lance Henriksen make a vivid first impression as coked-up, leather-clad Bonnie and Clyde wannabes Sunny and Rafe, stealing every scene they are in. As a young aspiring filmmaker, Hill was heavily influenced by John Boorman near avant-garde crime classic Point Blank (1967). Here for the opening he adopts a similarly fractured sense of space and time which along with his arresting use of extreme wide angles make the action resemble a comic book onscreen, though not in a juvenile sense. More along the lines of an adult-oriented graphic novel. An admittedly inconsistent but unfairly underrated and creatively innovative filmmaker, Hill layers the plot with some admirable character depth aided by Rourke’s initially poignant performance. But after a strong start things strangely run out of steam and thereafter grind laboriously through an odd hybrid of blue collar drama and predictable revenge plot.
Johnny’s romance with a nice girl played by future Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern derails the film into an adaptation of some kind of Bruce Springsteen song about regular working stiffs trying to make their way in a hard-living world. Throughout the first act there are hints that Hill is attempting to mount his hard-boiled thriller as an existential parable, once again along the lines of Point Blank. Yet whereas Lee Marvin’s anti-hero was a consistent force of nature, Johnny proves frustratingly flaky and obtuse. Although several characters insist he is trying to stay on the straight and narrow, Morgan Freeman’s detective remains adamant to the contrary and is ultimately proven correct even though his character does little besides cackle knowingly. There is, for example, no adequate reason why Johnny callously wrecks his romance with McGovern’s Donna to hop in bed with Sunny, the woman who shot his best friend. Never mind that Ellen Barkin wears some fetching leather outfits. The film chugs along with progressively less enthusiasm till it fizzles out with a weak climax. Regular Hill collaborator Ry Cooder contributes a typically atmospheric score.