Johnny Handsome is based on a rather obscure and dated novel called The Three Worlds Of Johnny Handsome. Walter Hill must have found something in the dated material that attracted him to the project. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to attract audiences. The film made a very paltry $7 million at the box and has been little heard from since. In spite of a solid cast and a script that does tend to move along at a nice clip, the film has never really found an audience and is somewhat of a surprise to be found on Blu-ray.
Johnny (Rourke) is a high-level hood who goes by the name Johnny Handsome in reference to extreme deformities in his face. He looks almost like tElephant Man. His deformity even affects his speech. He’s almost indecipherable when he talks. He’s involved in a big takedown of a coin shop that has some valuable pieces in its collection. He and his crew take down the store, but something goes very wrong. Rafe Garrett (Henriksen) and his girl Sunny (Barkin) betray the rest of the team. They end up running off with the loot and leave the rest of the crew dead. All except for Johnny, who managed to dodge the gunfire. All of his friends are dead, and Johnny’s left behind to take the fall…and the prison sentence. Still, Johnny won’t rat on the two that betrayed him and got away. But Rafe’s not taking any chances. He has Johnny stabbed in prison. Once again Johnny’s luck holds up, and he manages to survive Rafe’s wrath. In the prison hospital ward, Johnny meets Dr. Fisher (Whitaker), who has an experimental facial reconstruction procedure he’d like to try out on Johnny. It requires having his entire skull reconstructed. In return, Johnny will get a new identity to go with that new face.
Once back on the outside, Johnny lands a job at a shipyard and even meets a nice girl, Donna (McGovern) in the accounting department. Even after she learns of his past, she wants him. But Johnny can’t resist his own instincts. It doesn’t help that he’s hounded by Detective Drones (Freeman) who doesn’t buy any of Johnny’s attempt to go straight. With good reason. Johnny wants revenge on Rafe and Sonny. With a new name and a new face, he talks his way into working a job with the two. It’s a $5 million heist, but Johnny’s not interested in the money. He wants revenge for his dead friends.
There’s no question that Hill was attempting to make a modern film noir movie here. There are many of the traditional elements present here, to be sure. You have the untrustworthy femme fatale. There’s the necessary double cross. And even the shadowy locations and stiff dialog. The problem is that there are the likely necessary modern elements here as well. The music is quite atmospheric, but also very much a modern southern sound. The cast is quite a good one. Still, they don’t really carry themselves like the film noir actors and characters do. They try, certainly. But they are products of a different time. Hill would have been better off to abandon his attempt to make a 50’s film and use the considerable talents of his cast by playing to their strengths. What we end up with here are extraordinary performances that appear out of place somehow.
Johnny Handsome is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at a disappointing bit rate average of just 17 mbps. There are some moments of very sweet detail where you really get a glimpse of what Walter Hill was trying to do. The few well lit shots are pretty good. But the shadows that dominate the film often look murky and quite soft. This think doesn’t look much better than a DVD most of the time. Lionsgate offered more extras than I would have expected on a catalog title that performed this poorly. I wish there was more of that on the image presentation. Of course, it’s very hard to know for sure how much of this is poor transfer or Hill’s intended style.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is just as uneven. There are times when the dialog is too soft, and you really can’t make out what’s going on. I hate when I have to ride the volume control on a film. It’s rare these days. But Johnny Handsome is one of those films where you will struggle to find a level that works all of the time. Thank God for subtitles, anyway.
All of the extras are in HD.
Wordsmith: (12:39) Ken Friedman sits down and reminisces on his writing of the script. He’s candid about the film’s disappointing box office but lays the blame on the studio for its failure.
Eye Of The Beholder: (10:15) Here we hear about the look for Johnny before the operation.
Action Man: (11:12) Allan Graf was the stunt coordinator and played the getaway driver in the film’s first heist. He looks back on his own career and talks about how is relationship with Hill evolved.
In spite of Hill’s sometimes forced attempt at film noir and the disappointing box office, this is really not a bad film at all. There are some very strong performances here. Hill also delivers some wonderful shadow that comes across on the Blu-ray more than it might have back in 1989. It’s a thoughtful film that may have missed its mark, but never went totally astray. Hill was trying to do something that just can’t be done today. Perhaps if the film had been done in black & white, but I still think the film noir era is a reflection more on a place in time than a style. The film’s worth more of a chance than it got. “At least I think so.”