B-Movie Cult Classics Unearthed Watching Late-Night HBO in College (Mickey Rourke Edition!)

I think it’s safe to say that Mickey Rourke is a study in contrasts, an actor not just of two distinct careers, but also two distinct faces, the former something to celebrate, the latter best served as a cautionary tale.

Career/Face #1™ entered the public consciousness with his breakout supporting role as charming arsonist Teddy in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1981 neo-noir, Body Heat, a film Rourke followed up with, among others, Diner, Rumblefish, The Pope of Greenwich Village and 91/2 Weeks. Which is to say that, by the mid-80s, the actor found himself firmly ensconced in Hollywood’s leading-man firmament and justifiably so. A kid with a matinee-idol good looks who could also act? What’s not to like?

Rourke’s meteoric rise was short-lived, however, his return to earth precipitated by an ill-advised early-1990s detour into the world of professional boxing, a passion of his since youth apparently. Despite some pugilistic success, his acting career suffered mightily. Why? Because when he started looking for roles again, he now looked like “Blob” from Gigglesnort Hotel:

It seems all those plastic surgeries he had to repair his battered face didn’t go so well. Where once he vied for the lead in quality entertainments, Rourke — now sporting Career/Face #2™ — was stuck playing weirdos and heavies in what we’ll generously term B-movies (Double Team, Java Heat, etc.) There have been exceptions, of course, including his recurring role in director Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City franchise, his role as the baddie in Iron Man 2 (2010) and, most memorably, his Oscar-nominated turn as Randy “The Ram” Robinson in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008).

But I digress. Today’s post isn’t about his strange career trajectory or his melty-cheese face, it’s about some interesting choices he made back when he was still a pretty boy. (Please note: As always, a complicated and propriety algorithm was used to award numerical value to each movie.)

Angel Heart (1987, Dir. Alan Parker)

Full disclosure: I saw this in the theater, which begs the question: Why pay full boat for a theatrical first run when a free HBO viewing was in the near-future offing? I’d love to say it had something to do with Alan Parker’s avant-garde filmography (Midnight Express, Bugsy Malone, Pink Floyd – The Wall, Birdy), but I’d be lying. No, as an avid reader of movie magazines, I’d stumbled across this bit of compelling information: in addition to promising graphic violence, Angel Heart was initially slapped with an “X” rating by the MPAA for an explicit sex scene between Rourke and Lisa Bonet, the young actress who played The Cosby Show’s oldest fictional daughter, Denise.

Adolescent fantasies aside, Angel Heart stars Rourke as a PI named Harry Angel hired by the mysterious Louis Cyphre (Robert DeNiro sporting a ponytail, very long fingernails and a hard-boiled egg fetish).

It seems Cyphre would like Angel to track down one Jonathan Liebling, also known as “Johnny Favorite,” a signer whom Cyphre helped achieve a certain level of stardom back in the day. Despite reports to the contrary, Cyphre suspects Favorite is dead, which means Cyphre has the right to collect on a promised repayment for earlier assistance rendered.

Thus Angel begins his investigation, first in the cold, grey noirish shadows of New York in wintertime and, later, in the sweaty, verdant noirish shadows of New Orleans. Problem is, the deeper he digs, the more he’s haunted by strange, bloody visions.

What’s more, everyone he questions regarding Johnny Favorite’s whereabouts ends up dead in some gruesome manner, including gunshot to the eye, boiling gumbo, un-anesthetized heart removal, asphyxiation via severed genitalia, etc.

To reveal more wouldn’t be fair but, suffice to say, things continue to spiral out of Angel’s control until the final reveal, which, it should be noted, is a doozy.

Director Parker is often knocked by critics for being too enamored with pretty images. While I can understand an argument about style over substance, in the case this film I feel the imagery serves the story quite well, lending it an added element of menace to the proceedings.

In terms of Rourke, Angel Heart marks the apex of his career in terms of notoriety, box office muscle and ability to get eccentric projects into the production pipeline. Much like the film, he acquits himself nicely. While not for everyone, Parker’s neo-noir horror show is quite the ride.

Cult-o-Meter™ (10-pt. scale)

  • 8/10 (General Quality Rating)
  • 10/10 (Enhanced Rating When Viewed Post-Midnight and just back from 25¢ Beer Nite)

Johnny Handsome (1989, Dir. Walter Hill)

Now here’s an interesting Rourke performance, one of his best in my opinion.

The film begins with allusions to The Elephant Man as we’re introduced to a loser named John Sedley (Rourke), a man born with terrible facial deformations.

Needless to say, Sedley has had a rough go of it in terms of acceptance and self-esteem and, consequently, has become something of a small-time crook, working in tandem with his friend and mentor, Mikey Chalmette (Scott Wilson). While on a score, the two are betrayed by Sunny Boyd (Ellen Barkin) and Rafe Garrett (Lance Henriksen), the two meanest SOBs you’ll ever want to meet and one of the more interesting-looking couples in movie history.

Mikey dies, while Sedley, who is known (mockingly) as “Johnny Handsome,” heads to prison. And it’s there that he’s approached by Dr. Steven Fisher (Forest Whitaker), a surgeon who thinks he can repair Johnny’s disfigurement. What’s more, he theorizes that Johnny’s handicap predestined a life of crime and, once cured, might become a functioning member of society. A less charitable point of view is supplied by Lt. Drones (Morgan Freeman…talk about a cast!), a cop who’s been busting Johnny for years. He thinks the doctor is naive, that Johnny is simply a bad seed, a recidivist who won’t/can’t change his stripes regardless of how pretty he is.

With the surgery a success and his recovery complete, Johnny is paroled. On the outside, he gets a job at a local shipyard and, with a steady paycheck in hand, appears to walk the straight and narrow (thus proving Dr. Fisher’s theory). However, as Lt. Drones suspected, Johnny is only biding time as he plans a score that will exact revenge on Boyd and Garrett, neither of whom recognize this suddenly handsome Johnny.

Anyway, I’ll say no more other than the film is an enjoyable neo-noir directed by a guy (Walter Hill) who, back in the 1970s and 80s, had this violent genre down cold. (He also did The Warriors, Southern Comfort, The Long Riders, 48 Hours, etc.)

I’ll also reiterate that Rourke does fine work here, his takes on Johnny’s reactions to his shocking physical transformations both emotional and understated. Not to mention his work in the final scene, a powerhouse interaction with Freeman’s cop. Johnny Handsome is a film definitely worth your time.

Cult-o-Meter™ (10-pt. scale)

  • 7/10 (General Quality Rating)
  • 10/10 (Enhanced Rating When Viewed Post-Midnight and just back from 25¢ Beer Nite)

Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991, Dir. Simon Wincer)

Can somebody please explain to me director Simon Wincer’s career trajectory? He’s the one who, in 1989, delivered unto us Lonesome Dove, the epic CBS miniseries that’s arguably one of the best five or 10 filmed book adaptations in history. Talk about the world at your feet! With an Emmy for Best Director in his back pocket, Wincer had Hollywood knocking at his bungalow, anything project for the taking. Yet, you know what he chose? Quigley Down Under (Tom Selleck sharpshooting in the Australian outback). Never heard of it? There’s a reason for that — it blows. And after that? How does Free Willy (annoying kid saves large fish), Operation Dumbo Drop (Danny Glover, Ray Liotta and an unsuspecting pachyderm slumming for a paycheck) and Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (a sagging Paul Hogan well past his sell-by date) hit you? Like a skillet to the head, I hope.

I mean, WTF? How is it possible that someone with such obvious talent could crap the bed over and over like some diarrheal toddler? It boggles the mind.

Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, the film starring Rourke that Wincer excreted between Quigley and Willy is, quite simply, the biggest pile of steaming feces in the history of movies, one that makes Dumbo Drop look like Lawrence of Arabia. Truly it’s a permanent black stain upon the careers of all involved, especially its two stars, the aforementioned Rourke and Don Johnson. For shame, gentlemen!

Anyway, I’m not going to waste another second talking about it. For those interested in a synopsis, just click on the Wikipedia link above. I will, however, leave you with an applicable review, courtesy This Is Spinal Tap:

Here’s the trailer. Don’t forget to take a shower after viewing.

Cult-o-Meter™ (10-pt. scale)

  • 0/10 (General Quality Rating)
  • 2/10 (There are not enough 25¢ beers in the world to ever get this score bumped beyond a 2)

OK, I’m done. Showertime.

1 Comment

  • Greg Milne says:

    Jim,

    I think you and I were born of the same cinematic mother. Or perhaps when you’ve watched as many films as we probably have there’s bound to be a rather large Venn diagram-like overlap in appreciated films, performances, and the like. I’ve always loved Rourke, if only because his characters’ trajectories seem to oddly, often tragically, mirror his own. He and his characters seem to start off doing what they think is right, then what they think will work, and finally whatever they can do to stay alive. A slippery slope if ever there was one.

    As an aside, I find it interesting that Bill Cosby gave Lisa Bonet morality-based crap in the press for doing the nude scene in Angel Heart when it was released. Words fail.

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