By: Bill Nelson
Every once and a while, a studio thinks a film is going to change the world in some way. Sometimes it does, but only rarely. More often what we get is an overblown mixed bag of a flick that usually falls so far from the side of good that it’s all the studio can do to distance itself from the mess. Thus we come to Johnny Mnemonic in our journey through bad movies worth checking out. This was a 1995 actioner from Sony Pictures starring Keanu Reeves, Ice-T, Dina Meyer, Henry Rollins, Dolph Lundgren, and Udo Kier and based off of the classic cyberpunk short story by the legend, William Gibson. It was adapted for the screen by the author himself and directed by Robert Longo, an American painter and sculptor making his directorial debut. At the time, Keanu was still riding the high of his recent hit, Speed, and Dolph Lundgren and Udo Kier were still decent box office draws. The rest of the cast was made up of largely unknown or unproven screen actors, though both Ice-T and Henry Rollins had highly successful music careers that carried built in fan bases. Sony must have felt that with a young, hip cast and an adaptation of an iconic work of science fiction, whose ideas were just starting to come to fruition in the real world, nothing could go wrong. Instead, the film was ravaged by critics and only made back about 2/3s of its $30 million budget.
Going back and watching the film over 20 years after its release is a little weird. Technology has come so far in such a short time. There are references to 120 and 320 gigs being a lot of data and, though it really is a significant amount, it’s tiny when you realize that the terabyte is becoming the new minimum. The film shows successful video phone technology repeatedly, and, though that wasn’t exactly impossible in 1995, it was costly and difficult to do. Now we all carry phones capable of doing it without a second thought. Additionally, cybernetic implants play a crucial role in the story. Today, though we’re far from the neural implants in Johnny’s brain or the tech that gives bodyguard Jane her strength and speed, we do have artificial hearts and robotic limbs for amputees. And all of this was predicted almost entirely by one man. For those that don’t know, William Gibson coined the term cyberspace. He is credited with being the first to accurately predict what the internet would essentially become. This was all back in the 80s, when very few people knew the internet existed and even fewer were using it. Let’s face it, the internet was invented in the early 80s but didn’t become public until the late 80s and early 90s and it wasn’t until the turn of the century that it became a true power in the world. That said, even today we’re still hitting landmarks with the technology that Gibson and his peers predicted 30 years ago.
So what is Johnny Mnemonic, then, and why did it fail so badly? Well, Johnny Mnemonic is the story of a courier who carries black market data in an implant in his brain to avoid detection. Johnny’s trying to get out of the business and have his implants removed in an effort to regain memories that he gave up in order to get the implant in the first place. He is convinced to take one last job so he can afford the procedure. However, the data he is carrying far exceeds his storage capacity and he has only a short time to remove it before it ends up killing him. To make matters worse, the data is being hunted by its original owner, a pharmaceutical company called Pharma-Kom, who have contracted the Yakuza and a cybernetic religious zealot known as the Street Preacher to hunt him down and retrieve it no matter the cost. The film is ambitious in its depiction of a corporate run dystopian world, but fails to really capture it. Instead, it suffers from the ‘telling instead of showing’ problem. We’re told corporations run the world but the only company we see is Pharma-Kom and only through the eyes of one mid-level executive. We’re told there’s a war brewing between the technophiles and the luddites, called lo-teks in the film, but outside of a single instance where they try to take over a television signal and are immediately shut down at the beginning of the movie, we primarily see the lo-teks just wanting to be left alone.
Also, the acting is terrible. The only props go to Udo Kier and Dolph Lundgren, both of whom approach their roles with their usual manic zeal, infusing them with character even as they spew out the worst possible dialogue. That being said, you do see some early hints of the awesomeness that Keanu would carry into the role of Neo in The Matrix 4 years later. If he could have just lost that surfer accent completely for the film I might have held his performance in a little higher regard. Henry Rollins is also fun in the role of Spider, a street doctor who ends up getting some of the best lines in the movie.
While the technology used in the flick doesn’t hold up to the story it’s trying to tell, it is state of the art for its time. You have to think that if the story had focused on the technology at its heart instead of squandering the brilliance of William Gibson on a mindless action flick, the film would have been worlds better. Still, it’s not without its charm. If for nothing else than it’s the only film ever made based on Gibson’s work and the joyful, manic gleam in Dolph’s eyes when he plunges a massive, cross-shaped knife into just about anyone he can grab, this film deserves to be watched.
Stank Ranking –Share: – 8.5/10