Monday, June 9, 2008
Lean, extremely mean, and all around brilliant, Walter Hill’s 1989 feature Johnny Handsome stands as one of the best crime films of the eighties although it has still never gotten its total due for the truly great work it is.
Starting out life as a 1972 John Godey novel entitled The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome; Hill’s thrilling modern noir went through a lot of players’ hands before it ended up at his door in the late eighties.
Al Pacino had been attached to the project for quite awhile, along with director Harold Becker but the two couldn’t accept that at heart it was essentially just a hard-boiled thriller. Pacino would recall to Lawrence Grobal in 2005 that “Harold and I were trying to find the third act, and we couldn't. The first half of that movie is great.” Pacino would also regretfully say, “That was my favorite role ever in movies” which marks Johnny Handsome as one of the biggest what if’s in the actor’s legendary career.
Pacino and Becker, who would make Sea of Love in 1989 instead of Johnny Handsome, finally gave up on the project and it ended up with director Walter Hill who immediately saw greatness in the material.
Scripted by Heart like a Wheel screenwriter Ken Friedman and shot with icy cool precision by cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti, Johnny Handsome is one of Walter Hill’s greatest works and it fits in well with what is an impressive if often undervalued filmography.
Born in Long Beach, California a few years before the end of World War Two, Walter Hill started out his career after college not in films but in construction. A lifelong movie fan, Hill entered into the world of American film in 1968 as second assistant director on not one but two classic films, Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair and Peter Yates’ Bullitt. You can clearly see the influence both of these well paced and tightly cut films had on Hill all the way up to his current last feature film, 2002’s Undisputed. The calculated ferociousness of Bullitt can especially be felt in all of the best Hill’s features with Johnny Handsome being no exception.
Hill banged around Hollywood for awhile in the early seventies mostly working as screenwriter before he landed his first gig as a director with 1975’s Hard Times (which he also scripted). This brutal and tough as nails film pairing Charles Bronson and James Coburn would garner Hill some acclaim and marked him as a director who seemed acutely aware of the underlying violence in the classic male persona and it is this idea that has haunted many of his key works.
Hard Times would be followed up with the brutal one-two knockout punch of The Driver (1978) and The Warriors (1979). Both showed Hill as an absolute master of modern action films with a flair for crafting great car chases and pulling great performances out of his actors. The Warriors especially made Hill into something of a legend even though neither it nor The Driver got the credit they deserved at the time of their release, a problem that has plagued Hill’s career since the beginning.
Hill had slipped by the mid-eighties after the mega-hit 48 Hours (1982) and the cult film Streets of Fire (1984) although his films from this period (1985’s Brewster’s Millions, 1986’s Crossroads, 1987’s Extreme Prejudice and 1988’s Red Heat) are all worth another look. Johnny Handsome would return him to the kind of filmmaking that had made a film like The Warriors so special and it would be marked by one of the great performances by the actor who took over for Al Pacino, Mickey Rourke.
Rourke has admitted that he had all but lost interest in making movies by the time Johnny Handsome came around, but you can’t tell as he delivers one of his most finely crafted and haunting performances as the horribly disfigured criminal bent on revenge who gets a second chance on life with a new identity and a new face. Rourke’s work here for Hill is beautifully realized and ranks with the actor’s best. It is arguably the last really great starring role from Rourke (although an argument can be made for Cimino’s The Desperate Hours remake from a year later) until his welcome comeback that began in the late nineties.
Joining the powerful Rourke is an incredible cast made up of some of the finest actors in America, including Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Ellen Barkin, Lance Henrikson and Elizabeth McGovern. With the exception of McGovern (who I typically love in films but she seems miscast here) all give superlative performances, especially Freeman in one of his grittiest roles and the sizzling Barkin, who was being reunited with Rourke here seven years after Diner (and who would ironically appear in Sea Of Love with Pacino also in 1989).
The term ‘modern-noir’ is thrown around a lot but Walter Hill’s Johnny Handsome really fits the bill. It’s a tough and classic story of double crossings and revenge filled with over the brutal bad-guys, crooked cops, a sexy femme fatale and a tragic anti-hero who we know is doomed from the get go. Pacino mistakenly wanted to elevate Johnny Handsome into something perhaps more profound, but the great thing about the film is that is an unapologetic genre piece and Hill inherently realized that and let it play to the conventions instead of against them.
The film, clocking in at less than ninety minutes not counting the credits, is a winner from the lonely first frame to the final photograph that closes it. Helped by a typically memorable and brooding score by Ry Cooder with the aforementioned photography by Leonetti giving it a real timeless look, Johnny Handsome feels remarkably un-eighties like. While some of the fashions have dated, Hill’s film still feels fresh and it probably would have been a much bigger success post Pulp Fiction as it has much more in common with the crime films of the late nineties than the time it was shot in.
Hill’s razor sharp direction moves the film along at a lightning pace and it is one of the most intelligently shot movies he ever made. Hill’s constant framing Rourke behind bars of some sort makes the film work thematically as a tragic tale of a man who has no chance of succeeding at a new life because he literally can’t escape his old one. Johnny Handsome might not transcend the genre in which it places itself but that shouldn’t take away from just how smart of a film this is.
Johnny Handsome opened up to a mixed critical reaction (although almost everyone praised Rourke’s bravura performance) and mostly empty theaters in September of 1989. The shot on location in New Orleans film would rank in just over seven million dollars in its brief theatrical run, less than Sea of Love would make in its record breaking opening weekend the same month. It fared better on home video but has strangely slipped out of print in the United States.
The atrocious Artisan DVD from 2002 was a real insult to the film and looked like it had been transferred directly from the old full frame VHS marking it as one of the worst looking DVD’s released from a major company this decade. The in-print Region 2import DVD is an improvement but is still not a worthy edition to a film that is screaming for a special edition release. A Blu-ray was finally released in 2010 and, while it's not perfect, it is absolutely the best-release this film has had on home video.
Pacino admitted in 2005 that he still “loved the role” although he still hated the final act. He also tipped his hat to Rourke and said he “did a great job in it.” Roger Ebert wrote a terrific defense of the film in his near four star review and praised it as “ a movie in the true tradition of film noir - which someone who didn't write a dictionary once described as a movie where an ordinary guy indulges the weak side of his character, and hell opens up beneath his feet.”
The failure of Johnny Handsome to find its audience back in 1989 was frustrating to say the least (I still remember seeing it opening day in a near empty theater) but thankfully the Blu-ray will hopefully help more people discover it.
For more Johnny Handsome, please visit my friend LaShane's always awesome and essential Mickey Rourke Walls.