Johnny Handsome

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Johnny Handsome
Johnny handsome.jpg
Directed by Walter Hill
Produced by Charles Roven
Screenplay by Ken Friedman
Based on The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome 
by John Godey
Music by Ry Cooder
Cinematography Matthew F. Leonetti
Edited by Donn Aron
Carmel Davies
Freeman A. Davies
Carolco Pictures
The Guber-Peters Company
Distributed by Tri-Star Pictures
Release dates
  • September 29, 1989 (1989-09-29)
Running time
94 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $20 million
Box office $7,237,794
334,941 admissions (France)[1]

Johnny Handsome is a 1989 American crime drama film directed by Walter Hill and starring Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Forest Whitaker and Morgan Freeman. The film was written by Ken Friedman, and adapted from the novel The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome by John Godey. The music for the film was written, produced and performed by Ry Cooder, with four songs by Jim Keltner.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

John Sedley is a man with a disfigured face, mocked by others as "Johnny Handsome." He and a friend are double-crossed by two accomplices in a crime, Sunny Boyd and her partner Rafe, and a Judge sends Johnny to jail, where he vows to get even once he gets out. In prison, Johnny meets a surgeon named Fisher, who is looking for a guinea pig so he can attempt an experimental procedure in cosmetic surgery. Johnny, figuring he has nothing to lose, is given a new, normal-looking face (making him unrecognizable to the people who knew him) before he is released back into society.

Lt. Drones, a dour New Orleans law enforcement officer, is not fooled by Johnny's new look or new life, even when Johnny lands an honest job and begins seeing Donna McCarty, a normal and respectable woman who knows little of his past. The lieutenant tells Johnny right to his changed face that, on the inside, Johnny is still a hardened criminal and always will be. The cop is correct. Johnny cannot forget or forgive his sworn vengeance against Sunny and Rafe, joining them for another job, which ends violently for all.



The novel was published in 1972. The New York Times called it "part psychological novel, part action thriller" which "moves like a runaway train, and is as expert an example of the genre as anybody is going to come across."[3] The Chicago Tribune called it "wholly engrossing".[4]

Film rights were bought that year by 20th Century Fox who announced the film would be produced by Paul Heller and Fred Weintraub for their Sequota Productions Company.[5] However the film was not made.

The project was reactivated in 1987. Richard Gere was going to star with Harold Becker to direct.[6] Eventually Al Pacino signed to play the lead. By February 1988 Becker was out as director, replaced by Walter Hill. [7] Then Pacino dropped out and Mickey Rourke was cast instead.[8]

Walter Hill later claimed he turned down the movie four times:

No studio wanted to make it, and I didn't think any actor would be willing to play it. I wasn't sure the audience would buy the gimmick of the plastic surgery. It's an old-fashioned melodramatic device. Then about a year ago, I decided to do it. First, I figured that Hollywood is based on melodrama anyway and, second, I thought up a way to present the story in a way that resisted histrionics. More importantly, I found an actor who could play Johnny and not make it risible. Someone who understood the pitfalls of the thing. The main thing is that motion pictures have conditioned us to expect psychological realism. This is a drama in a different category. It's about moral choices... I knew I was on very thin ice. If you let any histrionics in, it will fall apart. You have to trust the drama of the whole rather than an individual scene. And that's antithetical to most actors. They want to know, 'Where's my big moment? When do I get to cry and scream?' Mickey understood that.[9]

"I'm drawn to characters where there's no happy ending, where things aren't rosy in the end," said Rourke. "It's not a happy world and there aren't easy, sappy endings to life."[10]

Hill said the film was reminiscent of 1940s film noir:

You have the doomed character, and audiences back then were more comfortable with it. You can imagine John Garfield having a lot of fun with something like this... But this one has a hard road commercially, and I'd like to see it have a chance to find an audience that will be interested. Some people like the movie and others are really offended by it. That's fine with me. I like movies that stir things up a little.[9]

"The audience is invited to anticipate the drama rather than be surprised," added Hill.[11] Shooting took place in November 1988 in New Orleans, where Hill had previously made Hard Times and Southern Comfort.[9]

Ellen Barkin said she wanted to play her role because her character, Sunny "is one of the great female villains. I don't know if I've ever seen a female villain so evil. Sunny's just mean, that's all there is to it. And the great thing about Sunny in this movie is they just let her be bad. With women they always want to give explanations: she had such a terrible childhood or something. They can't just let women be bad... Sex is just one of the tools Sunny uses to get what she wants. And what she wants is money! Pure greed!"[12]


The film premiered in September 1989 at the Toronto Film Festival. It also screened at the Venice Film Festival.

Henriksen and Barkin were nominated by the Chicago Film Critics Association for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively.

The film was not a box office success.[13]

Home video release[edit]

After the film's theatrical run, the film was released on videocassette and laserdisc in 1990 by International Video Entertainment. In 2002, the film was finally released on DVD, but without any bonus material and was shown in only a full frame presentation.

In 2010 the film was released on Blu-ray through Lions Gate Entertainment in its original widescreen presentation.


In 2008, Slant Magazine published a review of the Mickey Rourke film The Wrestler which commented on the similarities between that and Johnny Handsome:

There is a moment, early on in the film, when he staggers down the street, through a bleak New Jersey morning, a great hulk of a man, too big for his clothes. His face looks battered and puffy, and suddenly, out of nowhere, I got an acute and clear memory of his performance as the deformed criminal in 1989's Johnny Handsome. In the opening shots of that film, "Johnny Handsome" skulks down the street; his face has a ballooning forehead, a bulbous nose, a cleft palate. We know it is Mickey Rourke because he is the star of the film, but we cannot tell it is him. The story of that film, of "Johnny Handsome" getting an operation on his face that leaves him looking like, well, a young and handsome Mickey Rourke, is the reverse of what we have seen happen in Mickey Rourke's real life. It is one of those odd art-meeting-biography truths. In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke's actual face looks like the makeup-job he had done in that movie almost 20 years ago, and it's a strange, tragic thing to contemplate.[14]


  1. ^ Box office figures for Walter Hill films in France at Box Office Story
  2. ^ Johnny Handsome:Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Warner Bros. Records Inc. CD liner notes, 1989
  3. ^ Criminals At Large By NEWGATE CALLENDAR. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 21 May 1972: BR30.
  4. ^ Books Today: Primed for Crime Cromie, Alice Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file); May 25, 1972; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune pg. B6
  5. ^ MOVIE CALL SHEET: Director Koch to Return Murphy, Mary Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File); Jul 29, 1972; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times pg. B8
  6. ^ OUTTAKES: THE SEQUEL MONOPOLIZING ELVIS Matthew CostelloPat BroeskeDavid FoxJohn WilsonCraig Modderno. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 08 Mar 1987: L82.
  7. ^ CALENDAR: OUTTAKES Packaging Problems Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 21 Feb 1988: K22.
  8. ^ Cinefile Klady, Leonard. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 14 Aug 1988: K32.
  9. ^ a b c "'Johnny' Was Not Attractive Walter Hill Agreed To Direct The Difficult Film Noir "Johnny Handsome" - But Only After Refusing The Job Four Times." By Desmond Ryan Philadelphia Inquirer 1 Oct 1989 accessed 6 Feb 2015
  10. ^ Saurav Datt, Stand Alone: The Films of Mickey Rourke p 84 accessed 25 April 2015
  11. ^ Polish filmdom's bittersweet future Kehr, Dave. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 17 Sep 1989: E2.
  12. ^ At Long Last, Glamour Comes to Ellen Barkin: For Ellen Barkin, Glamour Comes at Last By GLENN COLLINSNew York Times (1923-Current file) Oct 10, 1989; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times pg. C17
  13. ^ "Black Rain, 'Sea of Love' Tops at Box Office : WEEKEND BOX OFFICE". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2011-03-29. 
  14. ^ "Gone Away, Come Back: Mickey Rourke" By Sheila O'Malley Slant Magazine December 17, 2008 accessed 25 April 2015

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