Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Cinematic Worlds of Johnny Handsome



by Philip Nathaniel Poggiali

John Mitchell Sedley is a professional thief nearing the end of a five-year stretch in the state pen. Face disfigured since birth, a cleft palate leaving his speech muffled and snorting, Sedley coped with derision and rejection as a youth by drifting into a life of crime. While on the inside, as the guinea pig in a rehabilitation experiment, Johnny goes under the knife to repair his cleft, chin, ears, brow and broken nose -- an alteration so extreme that even the convict's own mother wouldn't recognize him. Once in the free world, his new face should find him the respect he needs to live a clean life, or so his surgeon Dr. Katsouras believes. On the outside, Johnny attempts to go straight but can't resist the lure of crime. It's not long before he's casing the local small town bank and planning his double-cross for Jappy, the tightwad who couldn't bribe a cop to keep him out of prison.

She was looking at him appraisingly. "You're handsomer than Tully. You know that?"

He nodded and said, "I'll be the best-looking man in the whole cemetery."

John Godey's The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome was an old tale even for 1972, the one about the ex-con who tried to go straight but fell into bad habits, and whose bland appearance masked an intricate, brutal revenge. The writer's name was also a kind of mask, being a pseudonym for the late Morton Freedgood (who also wrote The Taking of Pelham One Two Three under the Godey moniker). Freedgood's noir-ish tone seemed fatalistic enough to justify a nagging sense of the familiar. Crime fiction tropes were trotted out to form a routine largely consistent with the retrogressive nature of the main character.

Freedgood's non-linear structure is unusual, and resembles Donald E. Westlake's experiments as Richard Stark (the Parker series also had its protagonist undergo plastic surgery). In Part One, entitled "Free World," the mysterious Mitchell introduces himself to Jappy and his gang of misfits -- including whiny Sunny and her dim-bulb boyfriend, Tully -- and pitches a bank job. Mitchell claims to have learned of the gang from a cellmate known as Johnny Handsome, a former employee of Jappy's who Mitchell says died in prison. What the reader isn't meant to know until the conclusion of "Free World," somewhere around page 70, is that Mitchell and Johnny happen to be the same criminal with different faces. Part Two, "Inside World," is a flashback covering Johnny's time in the pen and his surgery, and Part Three ("Real World") takes us back to the robbery and Johnny's plan to double-cross Jappy and walk away with the loot.

Screenwriter Ken Friedman received sole credit for adapting Three Worlds as JOHNNY HANDSOME (1989). I don't know if he penned the majority of the script, or if director Walter Hill had a lot of input, but whatever the case, there seem to have been wise decisions made in transition. Scenes were placed in chronological order, presumably to gain the viewer's emotional investment in Johnny at an earlier point. The ex-convict (portrayed brilliantly by Mickey Rourke) had a more sympathetic reason for getting revenge, in that his best friend Mikey (Scott Wilson) was murdered by their partners during a jewelry store holdup. Jappy and Tully, neither character very memorable or fully realized, were combined to give us the alternately sinister and pathetic Rafe (Lance Henriksen), while a few heavies were dropped and Sunny's role beefed and spiced up to the point where Ellen Barkin nearly walked off with the movie. And Lt. Shannon, the inevitable crooked cop who wants a piece of the action, was traded for sarcastic but honest Lt. Drones (Morgan Freeman), who dogs Johnny's every step and predicts the thief's fall as unwaveringly as his name would suggest. With his observations on the dubious moral character of ex-cons and the failure of reforming them, Drones voices the essence of both film and novel.

"Y'know, Johnny, you might fool this fucking quack and little sister over there, but I know you. I know who you are, and I know what you are. And we both know right where you're going. Don't we, Johnny?"

FULL CONTACT (HAAP DOU KO FEI) is a 1993 Hong Kong thriller (shot in Cantonese dialect) written by Nam Yin and directed by Ringo Lam. Humorous, stylish with action, steeped in corny melodrama and homoerotic male bonding, the film is an early 90s Hong Kong action picture through-and-through, and never captures the gritty, cynical spirit of either Freedgood's novel or Friedman/Hill's adaptation. But I do think that Lam borrowed a lot from Hill's visual style and, more significantly, imagined an alternate version of Friedman's story in which the Johnny character's friend is the one who betrays him, adding an interesting element to a rather generic revenge plot.

The Johnny figure is Ko Fei -- or Godfrey, or Jeffrey, depending on English subtitles and dubbing -- a Chinese bouncer in a Bangkok nightclub with a sense of ethics in opposition to his sleazy environment. Much like the Friedman protagonist, Ko Fei (Chow Yun-Fat) finds himself drawn into armed robbery to help a friend out of debt. He and buddy Sam (Anthony Wong) team up with the latter's flamboyantly gay cousin Judge (Simon Yam), and his bickering cohorts Yin and Madman, to rob a truck full of munitions. During the robbery Judge pulls a double-cross, Sam loses his nerve and, under pressure from his cousin, shoots Ko Fei and takes up with his friend's fiancée. Ko Fei, of course, is not dead, and after a few months in hiding he returns to steal the munitions from Judge -- the first step in an elaborate plan of vengeance.

"He looks awful familiar."

"There's no such thing as ghosts."

Lam, the director who brought us at least one unofficial Hong Kong remake of a U.S. production (WILD SEARCH, patterned on WITNESS) and who regularly lifts material from American genre pictures, seems to be an admirer of Hill and Friedman's approach. In addition to similarities of plot, both films open with jewelry heists in which a tastelessly dressed, sexually aggressive woman threatens customers, with pistol barrels shoved into the camera or photographed at such an angle that they appear larger than they are. Shadowy bars and deserted warehouse interiors are playing fields in both films. Ko Fei's appearance in the nightclub, after Judge learns the munitions have been stolen, resembles Johnny baiting Sunny at the bar in their first meeting after his release from prison. Like Hill, Lam has a fondness for trashy retro hairstyles, clothing and automobiles (the dance choreography, however, is basically of the period, especially a nightclub act set to Extreme's "Get the Funk Out").

The supporting villains seem familiar. Madman and Yin could be Rafe and Sunny of the Far East, or even, at times, Tully and Sunny. The femme fatale of JOHNNY HANDSOME was a greedy ex-prostitute. FULL CONTACT throws in nymphomania for comic relief (Yin: "I used to get it seven times a day! It's been a week now, and I'm tired of begging!"), moving further down a twisted path of the novel (Sunny, as written by Freedgood: "I can't stand three days without a man….If I don't get it at night, I can't go to sleep"). Madman, ignorant and incapable of thinking beyond his stomach and libido, is not a schemer like Rafe, but a stooge like Tully.

But FULL CONTACT is neither a remake nor an adaptation. Lam and Nam Yin do not include the disfigurement and plastic surgery elements. They're also far more compassionate with characters, allowing Ko Fei, Sam, and Ko Fei's fiancée, Mona, to learn from mistakes and atone for them. Ko Fei's ultimate goal is even noble: to deliver money stolen from Judge to a young woman horribly burned during the initial robbery.

The similarities are interesting, though, and I wonder how Lam would visualize The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome on film. With FULL CONTACT, we might have a rough idea.

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