Johnny Handsome is much deeper and more complex than just a crime thriller with a familiar twist. It explores the criminal underworld and characters that inhabit it with ease and authenticity. It also effortlessly transitions from a heist to a prison to a thriller and then a revenge movie. And I’m sure I forgot a couple of other elements. Oh yeah, there’s also romance, redemption, and science. Directed by the almighty Walter Hill (48 Hrs., The Driver, Trespass), this is a captivating neo-noir experience. And it’s quite memorable too.
If for nothing else than for the way Johnny Handsome looks. And you know that Handsome is a “crime nickname” like Little Mike or something like that. I remember watching it on television during the nineties and loving it. Mama made some lemon jam. Mama made some lemon jam. That sentence got stuck in my head and I kept saying it randomly afterward. And I still do. And I still don’t know why. Probably because I’ve watched Johnny Handsome in my early teens and back then you’re quite impressionable.
However, since then, I’ve rewatched it a couple of times and can say with full confidence that some of the scenes are truly captivating. We open with quite an explosive intro, settle into a more comfortable but still intense middle and finish with a grand finale. The atmosphere is gritty and nihilistic, just the way I like it. Since it was the eighties, everybody smokes and drinks heavily which adds to the overall mood of the movie.
John Sedley’s life has been a tragedy from the beginning. Born with a disfigured face, he was bullied, beaten, and pushed into the life of crime. Specializing in robberies, his next job is a risky one. However, he decides to go through with it because of his oldest and best friend Mikey. The heist was going well when all of a sudden everything changed. For the worse…
During the late eighties Mickey Rourke filmed quite a few gritty neo-noir movies before his inevitable downfall in the early nineties. Angel Heart, Year of the Dragon and Barfly are all great movies. He brought a sense of authenticity and honesty to his character of Johnny Handsome. Emotionally vulnerable and shunned by society, he couldn’t play that bad boy card we’re used to seeing him use. His next movie, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, was also pretty good before the 2008 resurrection with The Wrestler.
We also shouldn’t forget to mention Ellen Barkin and Lance Henriksen who also gave memorable performances. The whole crew who worked on this movie was simply amazing. I mean, the supporting cast includes Forest Whitaker and Morgan motherfucking Whitaker! And they had plenty of stuff to work with since Johnny Handsome is based on a novel written by John Godey. Their characters felt realistic and made decisions that were natural and not forced. Something that most crime movies struggle with when introducing conflict.
I mean, you could make separate movies for almost all of the characters. And they would be freaking amazing. I would love to learn more about Sunny and Rafe, especially Sunny. The storytelling is tight and you simply cannot guess what’s going to happen next. And the New Orleans setting adds a special flavor to the whole thing. So, if you’re looking for your daily fix of gritty crime movies, Johnny Handsome is a perfect choice.
Director: Walter Hill
Writers: John Godey, Ken Friedman
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Elizabeth McGovern, Morgan Freeman, Lance Henriksen, Scott Wilson
Fun Facts: Richard Gere, Al Pacino, and Willem Dafoe were all interested in playing the role of Johnny Handsome before Mickey Rourke was cast.