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Friday, March 29, 2019

NO ENCORES: Johnny Mnemonic (1995)

1. Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Director: Robert Longo

Here in 2019, the genre of cyberpunk is having something of a moment. This is, after all, the year “Blade Runner” and “Akira” were prophecized to take place in. There’s a hotly anticipated video game with the word right in its title coming soon. While big budget releases like “Blade Runner 2099” and “Alita: Battle Angel” haven’t exactly set the box office on fire, they have found passionate fan followings. The last time mainstream studios showed this much interest in cyberpunk was around 1995, when “Johnny Mnemonic” hit theater screens. The film was scripted by William Gibson, father of cyberpunk, and directed by artist and music video creator Robert Longo, making his feature film debut. The film was primed to be a blockbuster, with a 30 million dollar budget and a prime May release date. It was accompanied by tie-ins like a video game, a pinball machine, and an early attempt at internet viral marketing. The film, re-edited at the last minute to be more mainstream, failed at the American box office but was more successful internationally. The experience was so negative that Longo would retire from filmmaking all together.

The film is set in the dystopian future of 2021. (We have a lot of catching up to do in the next two years.) Cities have become burnt-out slums. Mega corporations rule the world. A debilitating virus known as NAS - neuron attenuation syndrome - is ravaging the public. Here we meet Johnny, a mnemonic courier. That’s someone with a hard drive built into their brain, used to discreetly transport hypersensitive information. The latest info dumped into Johnny’s brain is so valuable that many people are ready to kill him to prevent it from getting out. Teaming up with a NAS-afflicted bodyguard named Jane, Johnny goes on the run.

Like a lot of cyberpunk fiction, “Johnny Mnemonic” creates a compelling world to tell its story in. There’s a lot of details quickly presented to viewers here. Aside from concepts like NAS or mnemonic couriers, there’s also details like the Lo-Teks - rebels fighting the power - or PharmaKom - the big drug corporation - to learn about quickly. This world has its own lingo, fashion, drugs, and music. It’s a colorful future, full of casual cyborgs, transgender bodyguards, and super-hacker dolphins. The various rules of operating as a mnemonic courier is quickly prattled at us. These are all concepts that display a lot of imagination. The film’s stellar production design is up to the challenge presented by these concepts, creating a world that’s interesting to look at and inhabit.

While “Johnny Mnemonic’s” world is compelling, that doesn’t mean its story is especially coherent. The script strikes me as hopelessly overstuffed. The film bombards viewers with information but it still isn't enough to clarify everything happening in the story. Character introductions are rushed and blunt, leaving the audience with few ideas of who these people are or what they want. For example, the information that the executive of PharmaKom, played by wildly popular Japanese performer Takeshi Kitano, recently lost a daughter is dumped on us in the most awkward way possible. How the Lo-Teks and other factions weave in and out of the story is unwieldy. There's enough lore and backstory here to occupied a 13 episode anime. Instead of cutting anything, the film just shoves it all in. I'd place some of the blame on Gibson, more accustomed to writing novels than screenplays, but he claims the finished film doesn't resemble his script much. Granted, I watched the 96-minute long American cut of the film. The Japanese cut runs six minutes longer, is supposedly closer to Longo and Gibson’s original vision. Yet its hard to imagine those six minutes flesh things out that much.

More recently, the internet has really come around on Keanu Reeves. We've realized that, even if he certainly has his limitations as an actor, he's still a truly lovable performer. Moreover, he has gotten better with age. Compare his slick, quiet, intimidating performance in the “John Wick” films with his work here. As Johnny Mnemonic, Reaves comes off as somewhat petulant. He plays the part as a stiff jerk throughout most of the film. This may not be Keanu’s fault. Though the script depicts the character as learning to care about more than just himself, that isn’t really conveyed through his actions. However, we do still get occasional glimpses of what an appealing performer Reeves can be. Such as the effortless cool he summons up as Johnny assembles a hacking apparatus. Or during a delightfully over-the-top monologue, where Johnny describes what he feels he’s owed. This shows that Keanu is not a bad actor but a highly entertaining one rarely well-served by Hollywood.

The film does assemble a colorful collection of actors to fill its eccentric world. Such as Udo Kier, who appears as a perfectly sleazier middleman for Johnny, doing his typical Udo-Kier-thing, adding a layer of delicious camp to his scenes. Dolph Lundgren gets second billing but wouldn’t appear in another theatrically released film for fifteen years. Dolph brings his particular delivery to the role of a cyborg street preacher who moonlights as a vicious contract killer, given plenty of chances to deliver campy sermons and be physically intimidating. Ice-T shows up as the leader of the Lo-Teks, bringing the same decent tough guy hustle he showed in the same year’s aesthetically similar “Tank Girl.” Henry Rollins tries out dorkiness and empathy as an underground doctor to some success. Beat Takashi attempts to bring some stoic pathos to an underwritten part. Really, the only weak link in the cast is Dina Meyer, in her film debut. She seems baffled by the film despite playing the secondary lead.

Another thing that’s appealing about “Johnny Mnemonic” was totally unintended by the filmmakers. What once seemed like a high-tech vision of the future is laughably antiquated. The information Johnny carries in his brain hard drive, that is so taxing for his body to contain... is 230 gigabytes. Roughly the storage equivalent of an XBox 360. The film hits most of the laughable predictions of what people thought the future would look like in the nineties. Techno music is everywhere. MiniDisc is a cutting edge storage format. VR headsets are widely used, though not a single game of Beat Saber is played. Naturally, this leads to several garish virtual reality sequences. As much fun as the movie’s way off-base future is, those CGI scenes still look like shit. The climax, where Johnny enters the digital world to best an anti-virus program, is utterly impossible to follow.

Gibson and Longo originally envisioned “Johnny Mnemonic” as a low budget art film. They couldn’t get it funded in that form, forcing the transformation into a big budget action film. Yet it’s very clear that action is not really where Longo’s passion resided. There’s cool ideas here, like the villain utilizing a laser beam garrote to quickly dismember people. Yet the action scenes are not clearly directed. Dead bodies fly into frame suddenly. Most of the big fight scenes take place in blurry close-ups or far off wide shots. And, sometimes, big explosions are randomly inserted into the film. Dolph’s big bad guy is disposed through a very unclear manner. It’s not fair to blame Longo for these oversights, as I’m sure some of this stuff is the result of studio interference, but you can also tell action scenes were not his forte.

With its difficult to follow story, “Johnny Mnemonic” is best experienced if you just let it wash over you. As a delivery system for ridiculous characters, goofy visuals, and neat production design, it’s fairly entertaining. It is clear that this outcome fell short of Gibson and Longo’s vision. (Though I am curious if that Japanese cut is a significantly stronger film.) I can’t blame the guy for deciding movie making wasn’t for him after the difficult production. Of course, we all know that Keanu would eventually star in a successful cyberpunk action film loosely adapted from William Gibson’s writing, albeit in an unofficial capacity. As a campier prototype for “The Matrix,” “Johnny Mnemonic” does have its moments, even if it’s tricky for me to fully recommend it. [6.5/10]

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