Saturday, May 18, 2024

Classic Movie Review: ‘Johnny Mnemonic’ is Campy, Yet Cerebral

Director: Robert Longo
Writer: William Gibson
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Dolph Lundgren, Ice-T

Synopsis: A data courier, literally carrying a data package inside his head, must deliver it before he dies from the burden or is killed by the Yakuza.

In a world where corporations and criminal empires are one and the same, elite courier Johnny (Keanu Reeves) overloads his brain implant with 320 gigabytes of data that must be extracted in several days or his brain will turn to mush in the much maligned 1995 cyberpunk thriller, Johnny Mnemonic. Directed by Robert Longo in his lone feature film and adapted by William Gibson (The Peripheral) from his 1981 story, Johnny Mnemonic is actually a campy commentary wrapped in intriguing science fiction.

The opening scroll of Johnny Mnemonic establishes the million dollar microchips, technological plagues, info-wars resistance, smuggled secrets, and underground hackers immediately. Sophisticated meetings with guns drawn and corrupted data seepage provide a ticking clock amid unknown download codes, intense brain overloads, and corporate rivals in pursuit of the information in our head. They’d prefer the Pharmakom company defectors dead and Johnny decapitated for cryogenic shipment, and yes, the acting is hammy to match. However, there’s also a self-awareness to the science fiction camp thanks to melodramatic, kooky characters embracing the humor of Johnny delivering “double cheese, anchovies.” Johnny Mnemonic moves fast with unofficial attempts at extraction and violent negotiations for his head. Johnny is desperate to get online and needs a computer to do so, but the primitive retro-futuristic research montage is well directed and edited for suspense as hackers dial in and the baddies home in on the location. The virtual reality headsets are silly now, yet Johnny Mnemonic looks refreshingly gritty with harsh language peppering the sci-fi preposterous, shabby street clinics, zealous assassins, and virus consequences. Choice flashes accent our courier’s oozing data as the headaches escalate and the underground code breakers broadcast to the people. Of course, Johnny Mnemonic does descend into deus ex machina, and even Johnny asks WTF thanks to fiery cars dropped from the tops of buildings and standoffs between anonymous company folk and nondescript street people. The further the action set pieces get from Johnny and the immediate themes, the weaker the picture gets. Redundant bad guys are easily resolved, and it’s as if Johnny Mnemonic doesn’t know how to end despite the jury rigged extraction saving one and all in the nick of time. Fortunately, we can go along with the nonsensical dolphin data revealing the corporations versus the cure. The NAS virus is big money. So what if a few million poor people die?

Before he was John Wick, Keanu Reeves was Johnny Mnemonic with the expensive babes and luxury hotel suites. Elite clients can upload their consciousness to Swiss neural nets and be ghosts in the machine with citizenship rights; yet the poor victims of NAS must resort to underground connections. Johnny could illegally yank his implant out altogether and end up with no motor skills or memory, but he doesn’t know his home or remember his childhood anyway thanks to his microchip. There’s a sadness to the job and Johnny wants his brain back but he must complete this final run despite the overloaded jack-ins and nosebleeds. The uploads and fuzzy birthday party memories are somewhat comical in their intensity, but Johnny maintains his cool with a sardonic quip for everything. He’ll personally rough up anyone that double crosses him, but now everyone’s out to get him – if his head doesn’t blow up first. It’s safer that Johnny never looks at the data he carries but now he has the weight of the world in his brain and wants the info out, coherent data or not. Dolph Lundgren (Universal Soldier) certainly looks the ecclesiastic figure as the preacher Honig, carrying a shepherd’s crook and quoting Isaiah before putting a victim’s hand in a boiling pot. He’s an assassin to any unrepentant sinner with a serrated blade shaped like a crucifix and he’s in pursuit of Johnny’s head for triple the fee. Johnny Mnemonic would have been better if Honig was the only enemy after Johnny instead of several company factions, for his cheeky zealot is played to the hilt, yet is disturbing in his ominous extracting of information.

Ice-T (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) as the appearing and disappearing Lo-Tek leader J-Bone is likewise almost a mythical figure. His rivalry with Lundgren’s Preacher makes an interesting juxtaposition – the Nordic savior cum killer in White versus the Black man on the street with a gun who’s the hero of the people. Though talking the angry talk, J-Bone is surprisingly chill about jacking Johnny up to a dolphin to get the cure-all access codes. Udo Kier’s (Shadow of the Vampire) shady double dealing agent, however, will use Johnny as needed so long as the cutting off of his head remains gentlemanly. Former doctor Henry Rollins (Heat) also demands his work is clean. His so cranky he’s campy Spider embodies the warnings of Johnny Mnemonic in a few key scenes. The information overload from electronics everywhere has poisoned the airwaves, but even the people with NAS can’t live without the technology we created that’s causing our destruction. Dina Meyer’s (Starship Troopers) female bodyguard Jane shows signs of NAS with inconvenient twitches and spasms, but she can fight, and fight dirty. For fifty thousand dollars to save his head on the operating table, Jane becomes Johnny’s unlikely rescuer as well as the audience’s anchor, asking questions between the street action in quiet moments with Johnny. There’s a hint of attraction of course, but Jane and Johnny are both trying to make sense of their world, revealing pieces from each other’s past and sharing painful moments together.

The “Free City of Newark” is fittingly downtrodden with heavy metal edge and industrial dirty contrasting the high tech scans and suave Beijing chic. However, the Lo-Tek people are dystopian Merry Men with crossbows and questionable street urchin style alongside cliché Japanese villains. The slow motion shootouts are hokey but thankfully not drawn out, and the inside the conduits special effects downloads happen fast – tolerable because they aren’t panoramic shock and awe, for the sake of it cool. Johnny Mnemonic is colorful with gritty flair in spite of the terrible makeup and futuristic night club scene. The laser whip slicing off fingers is pretty neat, and predictive devices give wake up calls with the date, time, and weather. The giant headsets, mini discs, micro players, cassettes, fax machines, and brain upgrades, however, are all plug-in only. 160 gigabytes is supposed to be a lot (LOL), and the rundown of jack-in gear is silly – data gloves, GPL stealth module, and “eyephone” virtual goggles. AT&T is also the bemusing go to video call brand, and the masses are invited to set their VCRs as critical data is broadcast across convex, square monitors. The brain imagery does become somewhat Max Headroom like in the finale, but a dolphin’s initiating the download so you have to laugh instead of complain. Banks of big old little TVs together also do not a giant flat screen make, yet several blocks of televisions in the shape of a cross accent Johnny Mnemonic‘s metaphor on technology as religion leading to our detriment.

Viewers can tell there was a behind the scenes studio push to make Johnny Mnemonic more action oriented over the original cerebral concepts. Today Johnny Mnemonic would look very different, lacking the satirical self-awareness and taking its convoluted science fiction special effects far too seriously. However, the blueprint of today’s blockbusters is here: nothing burger visuals, sarcasm, action extremes. Certainly one must accept the datedness, inadvertent laughter, and camp in order to appreciate the winks and intriguing underlying themes. Johnny Mnemonic can be enjoyed for what it gets wrong as well as the ahead of its time, unable to tear the smartphone from our hands warnings it gets right – a fascinating film to revisit in this our John Wick world.

Grade: B

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