The idea that "Handsome is as handsome does" gets a fabulous twist in Walter Hill's "Johnny Handsome," featuring one of Mickey Rourke's most original and eloquent performances, right up there with his work in "Diner" and "The Wrestler." This elusively emotional, bare-knuckled gangster fantasy is both exciting and haunting. It's a sleek creation that sticks with you. It's a pleasure to report that it's finally available for home viewing today on a good-looking transfer, to Blu-ray.
The title character is a clever New Orleans career criminal whose real name is Johnny Sedley. His nickname, "Johnny Handsome," is a rude piece of irony, since he suffers from facial deformations that make him resemble what the leonine hero of "Beauty and the Beast" would look like after several horrifying poundings in the ring.
The way Rourke plays him and Walter Hill frames him, from the moment you see him ambling down a wet-neon Big Easy alley, he's a shadowy, shy, locked-in personality who's also an original and provocative character. You catch hints of feeling in the inarticulate murmur of his voice; you learn to read the wariness that seeps from his eyes. His look and posture betray the psychological beating he's taken all his life.
Johnny sheds his unease only when he's with his best friend, Mike (Scott Wilson), a sometime crook and full-time saloon owner who needs cash to pay off his bar. In the opening sequence -- a terrifying marvel of stagecraft and editing -- the heist of a precious coin shop culminates in a vicious double-cross that sends Johnny to prison and pits him against his former partners in crime, the psychotically avaricious Rafe (Lance Henriksen) and his demonic girlfriend Sunny (Ellen Barkin) .
When Johnny picks cotton at Angola Prison and then almost gets stabbed to death, Hill and Rourke do their meanest to put you inside his misshapen head. Two figures loom ominously above him. A suave, gritty cop named A.Z. Drones (Morgan Freeman) wants to hound Johnny into giving up the other players on the coin heist. But the smart, stalwart Dr. Resher (Forest Whitaker), who runs a charity hospital, feels that Johnny's criminal past is the result of his malformations. He wants to improve Johnny's looks and provide him with a new identity.
Rourke reaches the peak of his performance when he sees the result of his face-transforming surgeries. He looks in the mirror with a shudder; he outlines his new contours with surprisingly delicate fingers that express his wonderment. When he turns to his medical team, the tears trickle down before cascading. It may be the damndest piece of acting Rourke has ever done. He gets across the catharsis of a macho man who can't stifle his tears.
It's also the turning point in the movie. From that moment on, his life can't be so easily read. Dr. Resher is convinced that with his face fixed Johnny will get his mind right and create a new crime-free existence. Drones is convinced that Johnny will risk jail again to settle his old score with Rafe and Sunny. As Johnny takes a job at a shipyard and falls in love with a secretary named Donna (Elizabeth McGovern), Hill toys with the belief an audience holds in the power of impressions. You want Johnny to act better when he looks better.
Johnny has moved from a Hades-like underworld to the austere liberal heaven of Dr. Resher's charity hospital. Now, in the shipyard, in the mixed world of everyday American life, Johnny must navigate a place where even an honest, vibrant working-class girl like Donna can be coerced into "cooking the books" for an ex-boyfriend who's stealing equipment.
The movie develops terrific deadpan ironies when Johnny transfers the lessons and habits of one sphere to another. Dr. Resher tells Johnny that society is made up of people helping each other. Johnny decides to help Donna by threatening her ex-boyfriend with a knife.
Through it all, Ry Cooder's music adds a poignant twang. Though it's loosely based on "The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome," a "novel of suspense" by John Godey, on its own tough action-movie terms this unusually affecting film shares more of the quality and flavor of Ambrose Bierce or Edgar Allan Poe short stories. It has the tartness and bluntness of Bierce, the romantic melancholy and potent murkiness of Poe.
Many movies have been scary-funny. Although "Johnny Handsome" is studded with bits of sardonic humor, it's mostly scary-sad.