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Johnny Handsome is a deformed gangster who plans a successful robbery with a friend of his, Mikey Chalmette, and another couple (Sunny Boid and Rafe Garrett). During the heist, Johnny and Mikey are double-crossed by Sunny and Rafe---Mikey is killed and Johnny sent to prison. While in prison, Johnny is invited to a rehabilitation program, where Dr. Steven Fischer rebuilds Johnny's face and helps Johnny get paroled. Johnny starts working in a shipyard, where he meets Donna McCarty and starts a romance. Lt. A.Z. Drones is a skeptical detective who follows the rehabilitation of Johnny. Johnny's new life is consumed by the desire of payback. Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
A Level-Headed Gaze at the Natural Progression of a Character
Johnny Handsome emerges from the film noir envelope of the 1940s, out of movies with bleak streets and bitter laughter, with characters who dwell in sourpuss crash pads and regard bars as their personal salons. It is set in New Orleans, a city with a film noir essence, and it stars Mickey Rourke, who siphons himself into the role of a burnt-out down-and-outer who has as good as withdrawn himself. The only real friend he has is a father figure named Mikey, who brings Johnny in on a jewelry store job with a couple of really shady characters. They call him Johnny Handsome since his face has been miserably deformed since birth. He and John Merrick look closely related. Johnny has also trained himself to talk despite some sort of nasal or vocal obstruction by his disfigurement, resulting in a rhinal, phonetic mutter. As the movie opens he and Mikey have been double-crossed resulting in Mikey dead, Johnny the patsy, the haul in the hands of their despicable associates.
In jail, he's accorded a deal if he'll single out his co-conspirators. He declines, because it is of course gangland decree that you do not rat on your partners, and of course also because he intends to kill them when he gets back on the street. But then an intriguing thing happens to him: In jail, a caring surgeon recommends that plastic surgery could turn Johnny into a fairly attractive guy, and speech therapy could make him into an adequate contender for rehabilitation. Johnny is such a miserable and achingly sad character in such a bleak world that we are overjoyed by this ray of sunlight.
Johnny has nothing to lose, and subjects himself to the surgery which, faithful to the customs of movies like this, is no problem at all. Out on parole, he walks the straight and narrow. And he happens on a girl who loves him. However Johnny has an inner dilemma: Since the day he was born he's been walking around feeling repulsive, fearful, rejected, that he has a hard time grasping any real fortune. In fact, the choice is clear all along: He can go straight, mind his p's and q's and be content with this woman. Or he can resume with crime and see his vengeance through. As a man who's spent his entire life made to feel like a waste and a good-for-nothing, he has a choice between something that at this point he finds difficult, and something that comes very very easily. As per Rourke's usual, he adopts a challenging physical transformation that complements his emotional one.
Made during the late '80s, '90s stretch of typically unintelligent action pictures, with audiences less enterprising in a way than those of the 1940s and stars who like to maintain their hero worship or avoid any threat to their masculinity at the end, there is the expectation that Johnny will choose the path of improvement and hopefulness, not without some difficulty, naturally, but he is endowed with every emotional, practical and legal clean break to be able to do that. Nevertheless, the charm of this film, especially as an American action movie from 1989, is that it takes a level-headed gaze at the natural progression of its character. If you've been jeered into the shadows all your life, no matter how much light you suddenly get, where would you feel most at home? And what is happiness? Satisfaction, peace of mind. If you were him, what would really truly give you those things? This old film noir wine poured into a gritty, hazy new bottle is filmed with genuine flair. Matthew F. Leonetti, the cinematographer, smokes out the scrappiest alienation in the most sordid sections of New Orleans, and the Ry Cooder music is a merge with the blues and a weep. It is strange how Walter Hill's intensely dark and violent dramatic thriller is given little to no reference literature, hardly anyone has heard of it, is all in all a buried treasure. Not that many movies have the utter nostalgia, ruefulness and grit that this movie evokes throughout.
And the movie is definitely enhanced by tenacious supporting performances by a remarkably notable cast including Ellen Barkin, playing one rotten apple riding roughshod over any and everything that even comes close to boring her; Morgan Freeman in a rare role as a mean, cold man, a lone-wolf cop just waiting for Johnny to slip up; Lance Henriksen, on the other hand, breaking out of all those stoic roles to eat up the scenery as a formidably wicked character of almost comic-book proportions; and Forest Whitaker, that urgent ray of sunlight in Johnny's life, that one presence who is highly educated and highly compassionate and ennobled by his profession. And though he's largely identified with the action genres of post-classical American cinema, Hill directs with an almost maligning disinterest in Reagan-era Hollywood formality. This is a movie in the real practice of film noir, a movie where heroism is simply being able to survive, where an everyday person treats himself to the darker proclivities of his character, and destiny arrives.
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