Blu-ray Review: Johnny Handsome (1989)

Now Available to Own

The main source of inspiration for director Walter Hill's 1989 work came from the adaptation of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three novelist John Godey's previous book The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome. However, within the first act of this Film Noir tinged work, black and white movie fans are apt to find similarities between Handsome and WB's Humphrey Bogart vehicle Dark Passage.

Sharing not just the similar premise of a crook who undergoes plastic surgery with his own agenda to settle a score but also the same sort of frame composition of a near subjective camera during the first critical thirty minutes, Hill places characters directly in the center of the screen as though we were watching them speak through our main character's eyes. And throughout Handsome, he deftly balances classical filmmaking techniques with the far grittier world of Neo-Noir.

While in the '80s Rourke was no stranger to Film Noir homage, having turned in a small but vital performance in Lawrence Kasdan's Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity flavored masterpiece Body Heat, he's given a greater showcase to fascinate and frustrate viewers in screenwriter Ken Friedman's spin on the Godey novel.

After his best friend and near surrogate brother is murdered by the partners who double cross them in a score planned as a favor by the ironically nicknamed Johnny Handsome (Rourke) because he was born with massive cranial disfigurement to a drug addict mother, Johnny winds up in prison once again as a two time offender that Officer Drones (Morgan Freeman) can't wait to put down for good on his third strike.

Similarly after he winds up brutally stabbed by an inmate no doubt hired by one of the villains who turned deathly greedy during the opening heist, a kind surgeon (Forest Whitaker) offers Johnny the chance to start fresh in order to not only save his life but turn it around as well by giving him a brand new face as well as name.

Although Drones is skeptical and seems determined to crush Johnny with everything from an insult to sabotaging any chance he has in the future, Whitaker's crusading physician specializing in reconstructive surgery puts him under the knife in a series of drastic operations that wind up turning Johnny into... well, someone truly handsome.

Eventually given speech therapy, psychological evaluations and a work release agreement, Johnny returns to life on the other side of the bars, finding love for perhaps the first time ever with cute accountant Donna McCarty (Elizabeth McGovern) while working at a nearby shipyard.

Yet despite the fact that Johnny seems to be heading in the right direction perhaps for the first time in his life, he nonetheless still can't manage to forget what happened to his best friend. Quickly, he assimilates himself into the lives of the two people who double crossed him before in order to get revenge.

Sharply written and crisply executed with moodily atmospheric Louisiana visuals, Rambo producers Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar's underrated character driven Noir gem may wander into '80s violent excess from time-to-time but overall Johnny Handsome remains a solid throwback to its easily distinctive Noir inspiration.

Just like the 2010 Blu-ray release of another forgotten '80s crime thriller To Live and Die in L.A., the debut of Hill's Johnny Handsome in high definition is a very welcome addition to a Noir fan's movie repertoire.

And even though unfortunately the print transfer is subpar and looks like the equivalent of an upconverted DVD, hopefully, the release of the picture in time for Rourke's new film The Expendables will serve as incentive for both devotees of the actor and those looking for a smartly executed crime film to hunt it down amidst the shadows of a moonlight Louisiana night.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.