Judge Patrick Bromley asked his plastic surgeon for the Mickey Rourke, and instead he got the Mickey Mouse.
Revenge has a new face.
Walter Hill's underrated 1989 crime noir Johnny Handsome finally gets the digital video treatment it deserves. Mostly.
Facts of the Case
When grotesquely disfigured hood John Sedley (ironically nicknamed "Johnny Handsome," and played by the great Mickey Rourke of Killshot) is betrayed by his criminal partners (Ellen Barkin, Brooklyn's Finest, and Lance Henriksen, The Quick and the Dead), he spends the next years of his life behind bars and plotting his revenge. Thanks to surgical advances and the benevolence of prison doctor (Forest Whitaker, Where the Wild Things Are), Johnny is given a new face and a new life—one in which he's able to find love with a sweet, shy accountant (Elizabeth McGovern, Once Upon a Time in America). It isn't long before his desire for revenge—and the watchful eye of a persistent detective (Morgan Freeman, The Dark Knight)—force Johnny to tie up loose ends once and for all.
Johnny Handsome has had something of a checkered history on DVD. First released on the format in 2002 by the now-defunct Artisan, the movie was presented in an incorrect full frame aspect ratio and looked as though it had been transferred over from a worn VHS copy; in short, it received the treatment of most Artisan DVDs. Then, in March of 2009, it looked as though Lionsgate (who took over most of Artisan's catalogue) would finally be righting the wrong done to this underrated gem with a new DVD, complete with terrible cover art. Instead, they simply reproduced the botch job that Artisan had put out seven years prior: VHS transfer, full screen format, no extras. Fans of the movie—I could myself among them—were less than satisfied.
Now, here it is 2010 and Lionsgate is finally giving Johnny Handsome its due (and, oddly enough, trying to cash in on star Mickey Rourke's participation in this summer's The Expendendables; whatever their justification for doing right by this movie, I don't care) with a correctly-framed, 1080p HD transfer. The movie itself is an excellent, hard-boiled neo-noir—one that makes me sad that director Walter Hill didn't venture into the genre more often. The story is simple and goes through mostly familiar beats, but Hill directs the hell out of everything and gives the film such gritty, pulpy sense of style that it delivers exactly what you want out of a film like this. The cast is incredible, too, with Freeman and Whitaker (before either was all that famous, by the way) doing good, subtle work that contrasts well with the scene-chewing ferocity of villains Henriksen and (particularly) Barkin. Though Elizabeth McGovern feels a bit miscast as the love interest, I suspect that's by design; Hill understands that she doesn't belong in this world, and cast the role to reflect that displacement.
Above all, though, the movie makes a fascinating vehicle for Mickey Rourke and may, in fact, be one of the last good movies he did for over a decade. Seeing the ugly, disfigured Johnny go under the knife and come out as the then-handsome (almost pretty) Rourke makes for an interesting counterpart to what became of the actor in real life; his path, in which he had loads of plastic surgery and now is barely recognizable as the same person from 1989, is almost the exact opposite of the character in the film. Though he could have had a much more mainstream career, Rourke, like Johnny, could never stop himself from being drawn to the darkness. Project after project, Rourke was drawn to intense, non-commercial projects like Angel Heart and Barfly and Year of the Dragon. His resulting lack of box office success, combined with a reportedly difficult demeanor on set, is what would eventually do him in. In many ways, Johnny Handsome is as personal a film for the actor as The Wrestler would be in 2008.
So, now that we've waited all these years for a decent copy of Johnny Handsome, was it worth it? Pretty much. For the most part, Lionsgate's Blu-ray of the movie looks serviceable, ranging from quite good to near terrible. Thankfully, the terrible stuff is kept to a minimum (it's really only in the last shots of the movie, where for some reason they went back to the original VHS transfer). The rest of the movie, though uneven, is certainly the best the movie has ever looked on home video. Blacks are somewhat inconsistent and too much softness creeps in from time to time, but overall detail is strong and much of the movie has an effective sheen of grain. The only English-language audio option is at least a lossless DTS-HD track, but is only available in stereo. I've got no real complaints about it—the dialogue is clear and audible throughout—but it fails to make use of most home theater's surround capabilities and, as a result, lacks some punch during the bursts of action and violence.
Like the rest of the Johnny Handsome Blu-ray, Lionsgate has really only done the bare minimum when it comes to special features. There are three brief production featurettes, "Wordsmith," "Eye of the Beholder" and "Action Man," plus a collection of stills and the film's original trailer. A retrospective piece or—as long as I'm dreaming—a commentary from Hill would have been ideal. Oh well.
Johnny Handsome is a solid and underappreciated effort from one of the best genre directors of the last 30 years, featuring a great cast and a terrific turn from an equally underappreciated leading man. The Blu-ray has its share of problems, but it's nice to see this long-overlooked and mistreated film finally getting some of the recognition it deserves.
A problematic disc of terrific little movie. I'm happy just to have it at all.
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