The Walter Hill Collection: Johnny Handsome Review

John Sedley (Mickey Rourke) has been facially deformed since birth. He plans a robbery with Mikey (Scott Wilson), Sunny (Ellen Barkin) and Rafe (Lance Henriksen). The robbery is successful, but Sunny and Rafe double-cross the other two. Mikey is killed and Johnny arrested and sent to prison. Years later, Johnny undergoes surgery to restructure his features, and he is paroled. Working in a docks, he meets Donna (Elizabeth McGovern) and they start a romance. However, Lieutenant Drones (Morgan Freeman) does not believe that Johnny has really gone straight. With good reason, as Johnny is motivated by revenge.

Johnny Handsome is a curious film, in which Walter Hill (working from a script by Ken Friedman, from a novel by John Godey) seems to be trying to capture something of the spirit of film noir. Even the title sounds 40s. Noir is something Hill managed admirably earlier on in his career, with The Driver especially, but something was amiss around the late 80s, and Johnny Handsome only really works fitfully. It was a disappointment when I saw it in a cinema back in 1989 and a second viewing for this DVD review hasn't changed my mind.

The main problem is that the central character isn't interesting enough. He's overshadowed by the villains, especially Sunny (Ellen Barkin clearly having a ball). Also unhelpful is that the romance between Johnny and Donna is routine and treated routinely. Despite the best efforts of Elizabeth McGovern (a much underused actress at the best of times), there's little chemistry shown: it's a romance that we're told exists, rather than one we can see for itself.

In the early 80s, Mickey Rourke looked like a very big star in the making – and in some countries, especially in Europe, that is what he became. He had built up from an eye-catching small early role in Body Heat, via ensemble roles in Diner to charismatic star turns in Rumble Fish, Year of the Dragon, Angel Heart and Barfly. However, he's badly miscast in a misbegotten film, A Prayer for the Dying and his boxing drama Homeboy (cruelly dubbed Raging Bullshit by some) was the first of a series of bad decisions that derailed his career. The less said about Nine ½ Weeks the better, but it looks like a masterpiece compared to Rourke's 1990 exercise in soft porn, Wild Orchid, co-starring wife to be Carré Otis. Rourke is still working, but tends to turn up in character roles these days, with the occasional film like Sin City bringing him again to public notice.

Johnny Handsome is part of that downhill slide. Rourke is under heavy makeup for the first twenty minutes or so and with his familiar face for the rest of the film, but some spark is missing, both in his performance and Hill's direction. Hill only seems engaged during the film's violent climax. There's a strong supporting cast, including a rare screen role for the distinguished South African stage actress Yvonne Bryceland as a nun. Ry Cooder's score is another plus, and Matthew Leonetti at least ensures the film looks good.

A year later, Hill ended up making a by-the-numbers sequel to his earlier hit, Another 48HRS. Trespass (originally The Looters, but it was retitled and had its release delayed due to the Los Angeles riots), was an efficient but forgettable crime/action movie. His returns to the western genre, Geronimo and Wild Bill are highly rated by some (I found the former disappointing at the time and haven't seen the latter). Last Man Standing, Hill's take on the same story as Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, I also found forgettable. And Supernova was a disastrous attempt at SF which Hill took his name off. At the beginning of his directing career, Hill had a run of nine good years – seven good films in a row, four of which are in this box set. That's more than many directors get, and for that we should be grateful.


Part of the StudioCanal catalogue, Johnny Handsome is reissued by Optimum in the six-film Walter Hill Collection box set. The disc is a DVD-5 encoded for Region 2 only.

The transfer is in the original ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. Matthew Leonetti's camerawork is often dark, and that means grain: but that's the way this film was made, and if memory serves this DVD looks pretty much like it did on a cinema screen in 1989. It's otherwise sharp and colours are solid, even in smoky neon-lit interiors.

Johnny Handsome was shown in cinemas with a Dolby Stereo soundtrack,.and that's the source of the 2.0 mix on this DVD, which plays as Dolby Surround in ProLogic. There's not much in the way of directional sound here, as the surrounds tend to be used for music and ambience. More regrettable (once again) is that Optimum have not seen fit to provide subtitles on an English-language release.

The only extra is the trailer, which is anamorphic 1.85:1 and runs 1:27.

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