Directed by Walter Hill and starring Mickey Rourke (in a role originally intended for Al Pacino), 1989's Johnny Handsome sees Rourke playing a smalltime gangster named John Sedley, who has earned himself the nickname of 'Johnny Handsome' thanks to some facial deformities. He convinces a few acquaintances - Mikey (Scott Wilson), Sunny (Ellen Barkin) and Rafe (Lance Henriksen) - to help him out on a heist but of course, it all goes wrong. Mikey winds up dead and Sunny and Rafe abandon Johnny at the scene of the crime where he's promptly arrested. While he's doing his time, Dr. Steven Fisher (Forest Whitaker) performs an operation on him and restores his face to 'normal' so when he's released on parole shortly thereafter, he can go back to the outside world looking the way most would expect him to.
Once he's outside, however, Johnny draws the attention of a cop named A.Z. Drones (Morgan Freeman) who is dead certain that Johnny will go back to his old ways and return to a life of crime. As such, he follows him. Johnny, on the other hand, is trying to go straight, but soon finds that revenge is a far too tempting offer to resist. Will his newfound love of a cute accountant named Donna (Elizabeth McGovern) be enough to keep him from resorting to the crooked path he once walked?
So very obviously inspired by the hardboiled crime noir films of the forties, Johnny Handsome is pretty solid entertainment even if, at times, it heads a little too quickly, and intentionally, into B-movie territory. Hill does a fine job of paying homage to the shadowy world of double crossings and femme fatales that he is seemingly enamored with but has trouble setting his film apart from those that inspired it. The color obviously helps in that regard, as does the late eighties aesthetic, but this could have very easily been made decades ago. This is a plus in one way, but at the same time, those familiar with where Hill pulls his inspiration from may find things a bit predictable and at times just a bit too forced to really feel completely authentic.
With that complaint levied, to Hill's credit he does keep the film moving at a rock solid pace and really lets cinematographer Matthew Leonetti cut loose with some great camera work. Rourke, here at the end of his first career peek (we all know around the time this film was made he'd be more or less forgotten by Hollywood until his career was resurrected by Sin City, The Wrestler and soon The Expendables - a film that this Blu-ray's packaging has no qualms about capitalizing on) but he's good in the lead here. He's gruff enough looking that he fits the role and his performance is a strong one. Of course, the fact that he's surrounded by the likes of Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker and a sorely underused (and underappreciated) Lance Henriksen certainly helps but Rourke holds his own against a pretty formidable supporting cast and the film is all the better for it.
Ultimately the film is, at its core, a pretty standard revenge film. It starts off with a fantastic opening robbery sequence, settles down for a bit of a slow burn during the middle, and then ramps it back up to a quick pace for a wholly appropriate finale. The clever editing employed throughout the picture helps us forget about the periodically derivative storyline while Rourke's impressive acting here, tinged with just the right amount of pathos to keep us interested in him, anchors the picture with enough emotional weight to matter. Yeah, we might have seen this before and sure it's been done better by other directors, but when the dust settles Johnny Handsome is really a pretty decent slice of noir inspired entertainment made by a talented crew and with an equally talented cast. This makes it easy to look past its shortcomings and enjoy it for what it is.
Johnny Handsome arrives on Blu-ray in a 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentation that looks... well, it's all over the place, really. For every shot that shows off the sort of depth and clarity and detail you'd want out of a high definition release, there's one that looks soft, murky and below even what you'd expect out of a good looking standard definition release. As expected, there is some noticeable grain in the darker scenes which isn't really a problem though frequently flat and lifeless looking colors can't quite say the same and wind up making the picture look rather dull. Contrast looks okay during the daylight scenes but is poor during darker night time bits, and overall, the film looks really soft. Does it improve over a standard definition release? Most of the time, though not all of the time (though it is nice to see it in its proper widescreen - the previous releases from Artisan and then Lionsgate were both fullframe). But don't expect anything to write home about here, as the film hardly looks great or really even very good.
The sole audio option on this release is an English language DTS-HD 2.0 track that comes with optional subtitles in Spanish, French, English and English SDH. While primarily a dialogue driven film, there is some decent channel separation noticeable in the film's action scenes. Additionally the score is spread out fairly well. There are some scenes that are a bit on the flat side and a few bits that could have sounded a bit punchier than they do, but overall this is a fairly well balanced mix with clear dialogue and well replicated sound effects. A standard definition Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is also supplied in French.
Lionsgate hasn't' really rolled out the red carpet for this disc but they have supplied a trio of brief featurettes that cover the film, each of which is quite interesting. The first, Wordsmith (12:39), allows writer Ken Friedman to talk about the film's noir elements and about how those same noir elements relate to the film's style in terms of plot, pacing and dialogue. Eye Of The Beholder (10:15) takes a look at some of the problems that arose during the production of this film and then explores Rourke's involvement in the picture while Action Man (11:12) shows us, through a talk with Allan Grff, how some of the more impressive set pieces that anchor the film were choreographed and how some of the stunt work was handled.
Aside from that, look for a trailer for the feature, a still gallery, some menus and chapter selection options. It would have been nice to get a commentary track with Hill or Rourke, but that didn't happen. All of the extras on the disc are in AVC encoded HD, 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen.
Predictable as it may be in spots, Johnny Handsome is still worth checking out, even if Lionsgate's Blu-ray debut isn't all that impressive. The transfer is watchable, if inconsistent and periodically problematic, and the audio isn't going to floor you, but the featurettes, if a bit on the brief side, are interesting. Fans of the film already know they want this as it does offer an improvement over previous versions, and those who haven't seen the film should consider checking it out. Lionsgate's Blu-ray is pretty mediocre in a lot of ways, but it will offer a fairly big upgrade from the North American standard definition release. Gripes aside, the movie is good enough that it comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.