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Film review: Johnny Handsome

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"Johnny Handsome" is the third thriller in as many weeks (following "Sea of Love" and "Black Rain") that takes a good idea and throws it out the window in favor of a conventional shoot-'em-up formula.

And this one is particular frustrating since the premise is so intriguing; with a bit more care "Johnny Handsome" could have been a terrific film all the way instead of merely half way.

Mickey Rourke plays the title character, John Sedley, cruelly nicknamed "Johnny Handsome," a New Orleans petty hood with a face disfigured since birth, which, we are told, is probably due to his prostitute mother's drug addiction. Johnny is self-pitying and bitter, and has turned to a life of crime.

During an elaborately planned jewelry store heist, fellow crooks Lance Henrickson and Ellen Barkin double-cross Rourke and his best friend (Scott Wilson), leaving Rourke at the scene to take the rap.

Though he has refused to rat on them, a couple of other prisoners are hired to kill Johnny, and he wakes up in a hospital, seriously injured with stab wounds. There he meets a doctor (Forest Whitaker) who offers him a second chance.

The doctor suggests reconstructive surgery, along with an identity change, so that when Johnny becomes eligible for parole he can start life anew. After the painful surgery, Rourke gets on a work-release program at a shipyard, where he meets Elizabeth McGovern. They fall in love, of course, but Johnny soon has other things on his mind.

Despite his opportunities, as soon as Johnny is paroled he heads straight for revenge, goaded on by a cynical cop (Morgan Freeman) as he sets up his former partners.

This is really where the movie falls apart. If we were unsure of Rourke's intentions, or if we thought for even a moment that he might try to really turn his life around instead of simply going after vengeance, "Johnny Handsome" would have been a multilayered, complex and much more interesting movie.

But there's never any doubt. We never get to see Johnny's inner motivations, whether there's any turmoil involved, whether his new love is causing second thoughts. . . . Instead he just goes out and starts the machinery for his revenge, turning the last third of the film into more of a caper yarn than any waylaid step toward Johnny's redemption.

Rourke, despite being handicapped by a screenplay (by Ken Friedman, who wrote "Heart Like a Wheel") that is too simplistic and loaded with plot holes, delivers a fine performance, and the rest of the cast is also quite good. Director Walter Hill ("48 HRS.," "The Long Riders") goes for a film noir feel that works most of the way (it might have been better in black and white), and the two heists that open and close the film are very exciting. (There is also an effective Ry Cooder score.)

As is too often the case these days, the sum is not nearly as intriguing as many of the parts, but there's enough about "Johnny Handsome" that works to make it worth a look.

It is rated R for violence and profanity, with a brief sex scene.