Johnny Handsome Review

Hollywood films have always been rife with images of the disabled, frequently casting them as misunderstood pariahs, idiot henchmen, or occasionally malevolent geniuses, filled with wrath at their despised place in the world. But rarely is there anything like Johnny Handsome, a film which deftly avoids making any sort of statement about disability by avoiding making a statement on virtually anything at all, shoehorning its sarcastically named title character into a plot so conventional it’s virtually weightless. In fact, were it not for Mickey Rourke spending half of the movie looking like a grilled cheese sandwich gone terribly wrong, you probably wouldn’t give it a second thought. But the effect of his makeup is so strange, and so belabored upon, that you can’t help but feel that there’s some considerable distance between the intended and the achieved effect, and wonder exactly what the intended effect was.

John Sedley (Rourke) is a small time hood in Louisiana; he is referred to as ‘Johnny Handsome’ because of his extensive facial deformities and resulting speech impediment. An accurate visual reference point would be either Eric Stoltz in Mask or John Hurt in The Elephant Man. While working a heist at an antique coin store, he is betrayed by compatriots Sunny (Ellen Barkin) and Rafe (Lance Henriksen), as complete embodiments of film lowlife-dom as you are likely to ever find. Once in prison, he is attended to by the friendly Dr. Fisher (Forest Whitaker), who tells him that he can surgically correct all of Johnny’s facial deformities and his jawline. Though he is initially reluctant, Johnny agrees, and is soon freed from prison with a new face and an entirely new identity-that of Johnny Mitchell. But before he’s out on the street for long, Johnny is back looking for revenge.

There are two characters that didn’t seem to make it into that little plot summary, and they are Donna (Elizabeth McGovern), the shy, sensitive girl that Johnny befriends once he is out of prison, and Lieutenant Drones (Morgan Freeman), the police officer who insists that no level of facial surgery could hide who Johnny is on the inside. I racked my brain, but I was unable to come up with any way that either one of them affects the plot. Neither one of them changes what Johnny wants to do when he gets out of prison, and neither one of them really complicate it in any way. It’s always fun to see Morgan Freeman take a break from narrating things and cut it up a little (his lunatic performance may have been the only thing to make Dreamcatcher watchable, if Dreamcatcher was indeed watchable), but it’s still kind of ridiculous to bring him into a movie and not do anything with him. But even less meaningful than these characters is Johnny’s deformity, a thematic red herring that all but breaks the movie over its knee. It is mentioned that it may have been a result of his mother’s drug addiction, but that's only once. Formative incidents from childhood about the way that his deformity may have affected his later growth are, again, mentioned only once, in a story about beating up a kid who made fun of him. The only apparent meaning that we are supposed to derive from this is that his deformity drove him to a life of crime, but as the ‘even worse’ criminals have no such impediment, this too is a dead end.

If it seems like I’m making too much of this, it’s only because it is so tremendously distracting in a movie that would hardly be any different if he weren’t deformed at all. Ostensibly, it is so that he can meet up with Sunny and Rafe without them recognizing him, but that could have been tackled many different ways, and they never really do anything with the fact that he can. Imagine Star Wars with the Death Star shaped like a hot dog. Imagine The Godfather with an omelet taped to Marlon Brando’s face. Now imagine that it's mentioned only once, but never explained, and that you have to spend half the movie looking at it anyway. Not that this is approaching either of those films in quality, but it’s the only way I can think to convey how distracting a choice it really is, and how it adds nothing to an otherwise mediocre movie.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

The Blu-ray contains three featurettes: "Wordsmith" with screenwriter Ken Friedman, "Eye of the Beholder" with makeup artist Michael Westmore, and "Action Man" with stunt coordinator Alan Graf. They are all competently made, and suggest that a good deal of work went into this film, even if it doesn't entirely work. The original theatrical trailer is also included.

"Johnny Handsome" is on sale July 27, 2010 and is rated R. Action. Directed by Walter Hill. Written by Ken Friedman. Starring Elizabeth McGovern, Ellen Barkin , Forest Whitaker, Lance Henrikson, Mickey Rourke, Morgan Freeman.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


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