Thursday, February 27, 2014

Nothing But A Cheap Crook

Al Pacino wanted to play Johnny Handsome. In Lawrence Grobel’s book of interviews with the actor he talks about how he was going to do the film with director Harold Becker and he loved it, loved the part, that it was his favorite role ever, but as the script was worked on he felt they never got the right third act so it didn’t happen, finally saying, “Mickey Rourke did a great job on it but that didn’t matter; the movie didn’t have the finish.” On the film’s imdb page it states that Pacino dropped out because he “felt, despite numerous revisions, they had never been able to transcend the script’s B-movie qualities.” Which of course isn’t quite what he says to Grobel so maybe there’s another quote from him on it out there but, regardless, there is an interesting point to be made of what a film should be, what it can be turned into and if transcending the roots of a concept is actually a good idea. As it was finally made, JOHNNY HANDSOME which starred Rourke in the title role was directed by Walter Hill who I doubt ever had a problem with B-movie qualities and was certainly able to bring out the undeniable essence of character within a pulp framework in addition to making a full-on action film with all the energy imaginable. Hill’s JOHNNY HANDSOME didn’t do much business when it was released on September 29, 1989 but I’ve always admired its noirish stripped-down qualities and no-nonsense approach to the story, things which can certainly be said about any number of Walter Hill films. It fully embraces its roots in a way that this director seems to know how to do like few others. It still feels that way now. And you know what? The third act actually is kind of problematic. But let’s put that aside for the time being.
Deformed crook John Sedley (Mickey Rourke), known as ‘Johnny Handsome’ because of his appearance, is talked into pulling a job by his only friend Mikey (Scott Wilson) who is desperately in need of money. But things go wrong when they are double crossed in the middle of the job by accomplices Sunny Boyd (Ellen Barkin) and Rafe Garrett (Lance Henriksen) who kill Mikey and leave John for dead. After an attempt on his life in prison he winds up in a hospital where plastic surgeon Dr. Steven Fisher (Forest Whitaker) is looking for someone to test his new procedure on, giving John a new face and new identity but in spite of the skepticism of needling cop Lt. A.Z. Drones (Morgan Freeman) who knows what Johnny is deep down, things seem to be going well with a new job and nice new girl Donna McCarty (Elizabeth McGovern). But Johnny still has his eye on revenge and seeks out his old accomplices who don’t recognize him, with a plan for a new robbery and a ways to get back at them.
If you averaged out the running times of Walter Hill’s films you would probably come somewhere between 90 and 100 minutes (1993’s GERONIMO at 115 minutes is the exception to this). JOHNNY HANDSOME, coming in at about 93 minutes falls in the lower end of that spectrum and that lean feel of narrative economy is apparent right from the start, wasting no time with introducing us to the characters and who they are, moving quickly to the all-out assault of the initial heist. Ultimately this approach is what JOHNNY HANDSOME (screenplay by Ken Friedman, based on the novel “The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome” by John Godey) really is, a walk down a short, dark alley where there might be some momentary respite from the nastiness of this world but ultimately it just leads to a brick wall. Everything is a given, everything is inevitable and the way Hill tells the story he sees no reason to waste time—early on once the initial heist is finished we go from Johnny’s sentencing to the prison then finally to the hospital after the attempt on his life in the space of about two minutes. The film keeps moving, placing the emphasis on the noir-soaked nature of the story and this world instead of the action although since this is Walter Hill he never holds back on the gunplay, not at all, as well as forever juicy details in the dialogue like how the guys hired to kill Johnny in prison were paid “a grand each and cigarettes”.
And each of these characters are perfect in this world—Barkin’s Sunny and Henriksen’s Rafe are soaked in their own nastiness but are really just a bickering couple dependent on each other more than they want to admit, Whitaker’s doctor and his straightforward earnestness, Freeman’s cop who’s one step of every person he’s having a conversation with and Rourke as the title character, the calm center to the film as if in his earlier life Johnny was never fully formed because the world never allowed him to be. “Johnny don’t need no mask” is the childhood taunt he remembers and now that he’s finally given a mask he’s determined to use it while the white-hatted Lt. Drones taunts him, knowing what’s coming, knowing the truth that the ultimately decent doctor can never see since he can never understand the limitations of the mask he’s giving Johnny, that this is nothing more than a ‘genetic abnormality’ that needs to be fixed. He doesn’t even understand that, ultimately, a mask is all it is with Johnny staring at the photos of his old self, wondering who he really is, nothing to be afraid of anymore since in some ways he’s already died. Freeman, with a moment I love where he bursts out into a surprised smile at seeing the new Johnny where he states, “That is fucking amazing”, thinks that Whitaker is naïve and he’s not wrong but the doctor is just as someone who wants to bring the good out and he sees no reason why that can’t happen. Much as Al Pacino didn’t want it to be, the heart of JOHNNY HANDSOME isn’t its potential as character study as much as a simple demonstration of noir allowing the characters to emerge from that whiskey soaked atmosphere, so much that if you told me it was a faithful remake of a 75 minute film made in 1948 for the bottom half of a double bill I wouldn’t be surprised (Pauline Kael in her review speculates that film would be the 1941 Joan Crawford vehicle A WOMAN’S FACE but JOHNNY HANDSOME is much more down and dirty). And I wish it was so I could watch the two versions back to back.
The opening third detailing Johnny’s path to his new face offers some of the best work of Hill’s career without a wasted frame, giving us a feel of each of the characters. The three acts of the film are more or less broken down into the path to getting the new face, living with the new face and then using the new face to disguise the old face. The approach maybe isn’t perfect—the effect of the more experimental first third is broken slightly when it moves to the next section, opening with a montage of Johnny at his new job that is scored a little like a beer commercial and while there’s no way for such a spell not to be broken but it still feels like a misstep, taking us away from his head and a little too much into the outside world. You can feel Hill letting the actors dig into their characters and there’s a certain joy in that—just looking at their faces, whatever their real faces are, becomes the movie more than anything else—with the visual style like the following year’s ANOTHER 48 HRS. directed by Hill on which Matthew F. Leonetti also served as director of photography relies more on close-ups than Hill had done earlier in his career. When Sunny and Rafe reenter the story in the second half it’s frankly a joy to watch them and I certainly wouldn’t mind a few more scenes of just the two actors playing them snarling at each other but in keeping the pace going the film doesn’t waste time moving towards the second big heist either. More than anything it’s hurt by how the final section post-heist feels like a process of moving chess pieces into place more than telling the story of the title character since while things should barrel forward at this point there are the issues of laundering the money and certain people learning Johnny’s true identity and getting everyone to the same place for the climax. If it could have accomplished all this sooner while paying attention to the arc of the title character and run only 75 minutes, like the mythical black & white verison I mentioned, it might have been better than just another cool Walter Hill film. It might have been a minor classic.
But even in the final third here there are memorable moments, such as a phenomenal scene where Henriksen’s Rafe pulls a gun on Barkin’s Sunny and she, not caring, just walks past him. He holds his gun on her, wanting to pull the trigger on her and not bringing himself to doing it. Hill holds on the shot, letting the actors play out the moment as if it’s on stage and it couldn’t be more electrifying. The director isn’t trying to find these characters through speeches that they make so everything doesn’t stop while Johnny explains more than we ever need to know to Elizabeth McGovern’s Donna. Instead much of it is about the behavior in what these fantastic actors make out of these moments. Maybe the story needed an extra beat or two so things didn’t seem quite so clinical in the inevitability of what happens, where Johnny realizes that he has no choice but to do what he’s going to do since that’s the way the world is going to be no matter what. The story doesn’t always live up to the best moments, maybe that finish the film never found that Pacino alluded to, and I haven’t spent any time trying to come up with a better third act myself but at its best JOHNNY HANDSOME feels bracingly alive in a way that maybe only Walter Hill can deliver.
What does the story of this film inadvertently say about what has happened to Mickey Rourke’s face in the years since? Since this comes at the very end of the 80s it almost seems like the very end of classic-era Rourke (DESPERATE HOURS and HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN came after, followed by oblivion for a few years). It’s an unusual close to that period if that’s the case considering how much the character is supposed to be a blank, with his most emotional moments coming before his face changes. At first speechless at the sight of his new face, afterwards it’s as if he allows the blank of his new face to work for him, to play off of the much bigger performances around him and it’s continually fascinating to watch. Ellen Barkin (in one of two films released in September ’89—the other was SEA OF LOVE which also starred, what do you know, Al Pacino and was directed by Harold Becker) is phenomenal here, ferociously and terrifyingly sexy, fearless, grabbing hold of every scene she’s in and biting off every last ounce of meat she can find. The name Sunny couldn’t possibly seem less appropriate for her character and Barkin plays it as if she thought Marie Windsor in THE KILLING was too nice and sweet—when she tells Rourke, her old DINER co-star, that he’s giving her bad thoughts one can’t help but wonder what sort of thoughts she’d been having beforehand. She’s absolutely fearless here, taunting Johnny with a cry of “geek” like the kids who teased him when he was a kid, and the way her voice goes down on the word ‘gave’ when she says, “Either that or I gave it away” to Henriksen makes me think statues should be erected in her honor.
Really, all of these performances nail it—Lance Henriksen’s shitkicker glare, pounding down the whiskey is one of the best characters of his career, Morgan Freeman’s cockiness, Forest Whitaker’s kind nature. Looking at the film for the first time for a while I was also struck by how good Elizabeth McGovern is here. It’s not at all a showy role like the others and the good girl nature of the part is probably the weakest on the page but the actress imbues her scenes with a genuine sense of humanity without making a big thing out of it. In my imaginary 40s version I kept picturing Joan Bennett playing this part. Scott Wilson as Johnny’s one friend has a nice speech about his own desperation early on that helps make him a fully fleshed out character in just a few scenes and Peter Jason, familiar from both Walter Hill and John Carpenter films (his big screen debut was in Howard Hawks’ last, RIO LOBO) plays a boss at the shipyard where Johnny gets a job. In 48 HRS he’s the bartender at Torchy’s getting harassed by Eddie Murphy. Here, he gets full on pistol-whipped by Ellen Barkin. It’s a certain kind of filmic immortality, that’s for sure.
The issue isn’t whether or not Pacino was wrong, that doesn’t matter. And, yeah, he would have been amazing playing this role. The final version of JOHNNY HANDSOME is flawed and as much as I love just watching these actors embody these rolls in a way that is near exhilarating as a full story maybe it doesn’t entirely connect on an emotional level in the end. I don’t know if that connects so the last image we see before the end credits roll doesn’t register. The film isn’t about a lost friendship so much as booze-soaked tour of a New Orleans drenched world courtesy of a sometimes master director enacted by actors I love in which people don’t change no matter what, just frozen in themselves like a photographed carried in our back pocket until it’s falling apart. That’s a part of our dreams of the better person we’d like to be, the one we know we never will. And if that’s not noir, or at least a small slice of what it should be in the dead of night, I don’t know what is.

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