This is a minor Walter Hill film, partly redeemed by a couple of strong performances and an excellent score. Mickey Rourke (whose last good film, perhaps, this is) plays John Sedley, alias 'Johnny Handsome', and labours for the first part of the film under makeup presumably inspired by The Elephant Man, as well as a handicapping mumble recalling the actor's idol Marlon Brando. Hill, one time Peckinpah protégé, has seen better days with such films as The Warriors, 48 Hours, Streets Of Fire etc, and here struggles to make a rather bald plot dynamic. Essentially, it's a tale of crime gone wrong, betrayal, brooding then final revenge, enlivened with rather peremptory love interest. The surgery side of the story, in which Sedley is miraculously remade into handsome Mickey Rourke, is no more than a detour from an underworld tale we've all seen before.
Hill characteristically provides memorable opening sequences for his films. This strength is apparent here, as details of the cast appear over the preparation for the initial robbery, cut together effectively and precisely. The director fades the colour on these opening, planning scenes and, later, also includes a brief and horrific flashback in black and white. There are two robberies in the film, central points about which much of the drama revolves, carried off with some flair by the participants and the editing department. There's something of the flair of Hong Kong crime cinema as the masked villains burst into shops and offices to make their 'killing'. Elsewhere things flag a little - especially in the unconvincing Sunny and Rafe relationship, played respectively by an aggressive Ellen Barkin and the normally excellent Lance Henriksen. Sadly the character and motivations of the chief villain remain one-dimensional, and Rafe's bare-armed menace never rises above stereotype.
Sedley struggles to first rebuild his face, then his life, while courting the rather insipid Donna (Elizabeth McGovern) and hatching his master plan. Although his motivation for revenge is clear, in between surgery and larceny he rather languishes. Donna is a 'nice girl' - either na�ve or forgiving, however one chooses to see her, whose role in the final denouement is also deemed 'nice work'. This vaguely pejorative epithet, as well as her ill-judged covering up for a former boyfriend, provides her character's most defining moments. Her presence fails to give Sedley the impetus he needs, and her final abduction is sadly predictable. The attempt to work up another major character, this time through the doctor-with-a-social-conscience who treats Sedley (a peculiarly be-whiskered Forest Whitaker) is only partially successful. After a brief couple of confrontations with the implacable, and splendidly named, police Lieutenant A.Z. Drones (Morgan Freeman), he disappears. On the plus side, Rourke gives a generally good performance, being especially affecting in the scene when he examines his new face. Despite the limitations of the script, and even with the affected mumble, the actor avoids dropping into bathos in this critical scene, actually convincing the viewer of his pleasure in his new identity. His convincing gratitude to those who have changed his appearance pays dividends at the end of the film, during his confrontation with the vengeful Rafe. Rafe's pummelling of Sedley's face and vicious attack on his newly constituted features with a knife is truly disturbing, precisely because Rourke has so successfully communicated the humanity behind the criminal and surgical subject earlier.
As Drones (whose dogged perseverance reminds one of Inspector Javert in Les Miserables), Freeman is excellent. An actor whose distinctive tones and modulated performances give class to any film, he raises his part far above the lines he is given here, and goes a way in making up for weaknesses elsewhere. During his few prison scenes with Rourke, in fact, one can shut one's eyes listen to his voice, and summon up the much greater pleasures of The Shawshank Redemption (1994). It is he who recognises the reality at the centre of the film: that Sedley can change his appearance, but can never change what is inside of himself or where it will lead: "I know what you are," he says to the felon at one point. "And we both know where you're going, don't we Johnny?" At the close of the film, after bullets have flown and dust settled, Sedley finally acknowledges this fact using an ironic phrase which implies both physical and moral assessment: "How do I look?"
Fans of Rourke and Freeman will certainly want to see this film, although others will find there is rather less to it than meets the eye. Ry Cooder, a regular collaborator with the director, turns in a superb score full of slide guitar work, with dramatic bass lines for the action sequences. This makes one regret that the final package to which he contributed so valiantly is ultimately so unmemorable. Admirers of Hill, wanting to see one of his late urban thrillers with more interest, will be better off with Trespass of three years later.
The DVD offers a basic package of scene access, German and English language options, and a trailer.