Friday May 26, 1995
In "Johnny Mnemonic," set in 2021, Keanu Reeves plays a courier who transports nefarious top-secret corporate information in his chip-enhanced, mega-storage capacity noggin. He has made room for the info by dumping most of his own memory, which may or may not explain why Johnny is such a blank. But do the filmmakers realize how blank this hero is?
Visual artist Robert Longo, directing from a script by cyberpunk author William Gibson, isn't big on funniness. A movie that partially takes place inside the cranial cyberspace of an empty-headed character ought to be more kicky and satiric than this glum, punchy blowout. And the race by the bad guys to capture Johnny's head--intact--should be kickier, too. It should be, as more than one critic has already pointed out, "Bring Me the Head of Johnny Mnemonic."
There's a messianic streak in the movie--it's present in most apocalyptic sci-fi--but the punk religiosity is all swagger and attitude. If the film is about holding onto your humanity during the apocalypse, it would help to have a little more humanity on view.
It would also help if an occasional glint of brightness would penetrate the film's glowering grunginess. It's as if production designer Nilo Rodis Jamero were trying to turn us all into bats; the re-creations of central Beijing and the Free City of Newark are darker than dark. This Information Superhighway could use a few street lamps. We're supposed to be wowed by all the dankness: the crunched, blasted cables and catwalks and spare mechanical parts that crowd this world. But it all has an undifferentiated dullness--kind of like the inside of Johnny's mind.
Now that we're primed for an onslaught of cyberpunk movies it would be helpful to point out that all this cyber stuff still requires a few old-fashioned dramatic virtues, like gripping, well-told stories and characters you can connect with. If you burn away all the newfangledness from this film you're left with a lot of blotchy noir-ish bits from James Bond and Raymond Chandler, with none of the bits coming together.
The Gibson short story that "inspired" the film was a brief, amusingly punky piece of futurism--hard-boiled gumshoe pulp for the cyberpunk generation. The movie goes way beyond Gibson's slim enjoyments into a gross fatigue of sodden plots and counterplots. In the 21st Century, the world is divided into warring corporate fiefdoms with technologically enhanced samurai bodyguards and Yakuza overlords and anarchic urban guerrillas--they're the good guys--called LoTeks. There's even a dolphin named Jones, an ex-Navy code-breaker, who helps Johnny download.
The cast is full of striking faces, belonging to such performers as Ice-T, Japanese superstar Takeshi, Udo Kier, Dina Meyer (as Johnny's samurai sweetie), Barbara Sukowa and Henry Rollins. But most of them can't break through the gloom. The one exception is Dolph Lundgren, playing a crazed evangelist with messianic hair and a hair-trigger temper. Lundgren is explosively fanatical and funny. Wonder of wonders--he actually gives the best performance in the movie.
Considering the void at the center of his character, Reeves isn't bad. He's worked up some tricky robotic movements but his dialogue can't match their invention.
Johnny Mnemonic, 1995. R, for sci-fi violence and for language. A TriStar release of a Peter Hoffman presentation of an Alliance production. Director Robert Longo. Producer Don Carmody. Executive producers Staffan Ahrenberg, B.J. Rack, Victoria Hamburg, Robert Lantos. Screenplay by William Gibson, based on his short story. Cinematographer Francois Protat. Editor Ronald Sanders. Costumes Olga Dimitrov. Music Brad Fiedel. Production design Nilo Rodis Jamero. Set decorator Enrico Campana. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. Keanu Reeves as Johnny Mnemonic. Dolph Lundgren as Street Preacher. Takeshi as Takahashi. Ice-T as J-Bone.