80’S ARTIFACTS UNCOVERED BY MOVIE: Mickey Rourke before he was wrasslin’ Ernest “The Cat” Miller, whipping Robert Downey Jr., and calling me a fatboy.
Robo-Rourke; Bad, Bad Bishop; Sheriff Easy Reader; Lt. Kavanaugh, Chin Butcher; Roy Biggins, Money Launderer; She’s Having an Ugly Guy; pre-Kanye West New Orleans; Rocky Dennis out for Revenge; and the burning grandfather clock hotness of Ellen Barkins. Grrrrr.
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The black-souled city of New Orleans is home to Johnny “Handsome” Sedley (Mickey Rourke), a horribly disfigured crook whose best friend comes to him for help putting together a robbery to raise money to fund his path to legitimacy. The friend has enlisted steely hood Rafe (Lance Hendrickson) and his trashy moll Sunny (Ellen Barkin) despite Johnny’s reservations. They pull off the daytime stick-up of a jewelry store expertly up until Johnny and his friend are double-crossed by the unnatural born killers. The friend is killed but Johnny survives, is sent to prison, and refuses to rat out his treacherous compatriots, still clinging to some hopeless underworld code. He’s then hounded by obsessive police Lt. Drones (Morgan Freeman) who tries to wear Johnny down in order to nab the rest of the gang. But the paranoid Rafe takes out a contract on Johnny and he’s subsequently stabbed in the prison yard. While in the infirmary, he is befriended by kind plastic surgeon Dr. Fisher (Forest Whitaker) who recruits him in a radical rehabilitation program that will give him a new face and lease on life. Johnny agrees and over time, the surgery is a complete success. With Fisher’s help, Johnny gets an early parole, a job, and an opportunity to go straight. But the burning urge to exact revenge on Rafe and Sunny leads him back to a dark path, and not even new love Donna (Elizabeth McGovern) is enough to hamper his dark impulses. He quickly puts together a plan to rob his employer’s payroll, and seeks out Rafe and Sunny who have no idea who their new partner really is. And after so many years feeling ugly and unloved, Johnny is finally able to see something worth loving within him, a self-revelation that is soon extinguished as his grotesque criminal world drags him back to leave Donna a short-lived memory, to carry out his revenge, and to claim his doomed soul that briefly saw light.
Okay, so I’m only going to mention this once and be done with it. It’s a chapter of El T’s life that everyone I know is piss-pot sick of hearing. Mickey Rourke once called me “fat-boy”. It was back in the early 90s during the filming of Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man in which I worked on as a college intern. A mere craft services monkey, I inadvertently interrupted his train of thought on set (because, as you know, the part of Harley Davidson requires intense method-motorcycle meditation). I laughed it off at first, but have to admit, I was kinda butt-hurt later, especially since several crew members teased me for days. Now, nearly twenty years later and having witnessed his ring prowess, I formally challenge Mr. Rourke to a no-holds-barred barbwire cage match on fire. I await a semi-coherent reply.
Anyway, director Walter Hill is arguably one of the last of the maverick filmmakers, a man who in his prime largely shunned flashy blockbusters and Hollywood fluff and created seedy, sparse, and effective thrillers, actioners, and westerns such as Hard Times, The Getaway, and The Long Riders. A protégé of the great Sam Peckinpah, Hill and his works have been fueled by a masculine ferocity, a desire to explore dark territories, and an ardent interest in the immoral, twisted, and deviate world of crime. Although his later works are mostly commercial in nature and lack the intensity of his early films, he returned to form in the late 80s with the angry, brutish, and bleak crime story Johnny Handsome. Hill’s crafting of violent heist scenes is second-to-none and there are two sequences in the movie that are outstanding and should be made models of close quarters action. As the deformed then reformed title character, Rourke is quietly intense and soft-spoken, a calculating criminal concealing a lifetime of rage and headed towards damnation. Hendrickson and Barkins are spectacularly over-the-top as Rafe and Sunny - shadowy, insane, and dangerous all at once. While the movie looks and plays out like a seminal example of neo-noir, Hill frames the story like a western with Johnny reminiscent of Shane only with a bloodlust that will not allow him to ride off into the sunset, but instead opens a pit of a self-made hell. Johnny Handsome’s morals are about as miserable and gloomy as crime film gets, but Hill keeps things engaging through masterful storytelling, creating a fervent and dark tragedy as ugly as Johnny’s face and his decision to forsake normalcy for evening the score.