Walter Hill’s screen adaptation of the novel “The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome” is a violent and moody throwback to the tough B-movies of the forties. Typically inspired by westerns, Hill has turned his considerable talents and focus to noir-cinema and creates an atmospheric and nihilistic picture with some intriguing characters. However, the mannered and over melodramatic story starts with a fantastic premise and devolves into an average revenge picture, and the downbeat ending leaves a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth as it renders the entire film irrelevant.
John Sedley was born with a severely disfigured face, mocked by others as “Johnny Handsome.” He makes his living as a small-time criminal. During a robbery Johnny and his best friend Mikey are double-crossed by their two accomplices, Sunny Boyd (Ellen Barkin) and her partner Rafe(Lance Henriksen). Mikey is shot dead, and Johnny takes the rap for the robbery and goes to prison. There, thanks to a sympathetic surgeon (Forest Whitaker), Johnny undergoes an experimental procedure in cosmetic surgery.
Once John is release back into society he immediately begins to seek revenge. On his case is Lt. Drones (Morgan Freeman), a dour New Orleans law enforcement officer, who’s not fooled by Johnny’s new look or new life, even when Johnny lands an honest job and begins seeing Donna McCarty (Elizabeth McGovern), a normal and respectable woman who knows little of his past. However, Johnny cannot forget or forgive his sworn vengeance against Sunny and Rafe, joining them for another job, which ends violently for all.
Walter Hill’s filmography is littered with excellent films that tanked at the box-office and were dismissed by critics. Johnny Handsome has grown a cult following over the years with cinephiles, but I wasn’t won over by the film or its pedestrian storyline. The Hill film cannon has so many gems that I would suggest re-watching Streets of Fire or discovering an overlooked gem like Extreme Prejudice, instead.
Director: Walter Hill
Stars: Mickey Rourke, Lance Henriksen, Morgan Freeman
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