Um, ok, HOW had I not seen JOHNNY MNEMONIC until recently?! (My sole interaction with it was its pinball machine.) The AESTHETIC of that film is RIGHT up my alley…cyberpunk mayhem, a pop-philosophy acid trip….calling it “a mid-90’s MATRIX” seems both pat and inevitable—but I’d rather call it a companion piece to the OTHER 1995 sci-fi/action/fun-dystopic adaptation blockbuster JUDGE DREDD.
Keanu Reeves plays a crooked courier in 2021 who stores gigabytes (yeah, only gigabytes) of data in the chip planted in his brain. Keanu takes on one last job, dangerously overloaded with 0’s and 1’s leaking into his gray matter, at which point action ensues. His adventures from Beijing to THE FREE STATE OF NEWARK see him deal with crooked corporate thugs, YAKUZA, anti-technology anarchists, techno-plague-fighting rogue doctors, cybernetically-enhanced female bodyguards, and, somehow least improbably, a messianic dolphin (originally a HEROIN JUNKIE dolphin in one version of the film).
In a cheeky bit of casting, Black Flag frontman and punk icon Henry Rollins was cast as a “street doctor” (named SPIDER) who performs black market robo-implant surgery while also doing Doctors Without Borders on the side for plague victims in the subway. To my pleasant surprise, Rollins was a better actor than almost anyone in JOHNNY MNEMONIC, with his best scene being his rant against modern technology (the cause of the “nerve attenuation syndrome” afflicting the masses).
Dollar movie legend Dolph Lundgren adds muscle to the movie as a crooked preacher (hiding a vidphone, linked to a crooked CEO, inside a hollowed-out Latin bible!) who also performs hits for a high fee. The sight of Lundgren with long hair and a beard, plus robe and crook, is a must-see on its own (it looks like Ivan Drago invaded a manger scene). But the king topper is his weapon of choice, a CRUCIFIX that doubles as a GIANT KNIFE. Lundgren must have had a great agent, because he got SECOND BILLING on this movie and he had about 3 minutes of screen time, tops.
As should be no surprise to devotees of RICOCHET and NEW JACK CITY, Ice-T turns in an excellent performance as “J-Bone,” the leader of an anarchic anti-technology resistance group called the Lo-Teks (who operate on the underside of the Brooklyn Bridge). Is Ice-T the most underrated actor of our lifetimes? Unfortunately he isn’t given a whole lot to do, but he has a GREAT look and he provides some weight to the political side of the plot.
If I’m being totally honest, the film could have used some trimming on the back end—it felt a bit too long, like they took a breather near the end when it SHOULD have plowed through to the climax. My other complaints are little more bitter. Dollar movies are experiential, and I should point out that my screening started LATE, AND they raised the price of pretzels! My waitress told me the screening was supposed to have a host/introducer, but he apparently no-showed (actually, I may have dodged a bullet there). Worst of all, though, was the fact that the audience I saw this movie with was an IRONY-HEAVY CROWD. SO much obnoxious laughter….like, “LOOK AT ME LAUGHING AT THIS MOVIE, GUYS.”
Mainly the laughs came when characters used the Internet or hacked into computer systems, which took the form of performing actions in a virtual-reality 3D landscape. The metaphorization of computer hacking on film is difficult to do well, but I’m willing to be generous toward those that try. (I mean, I don’t just want to watch some guy sit at a computer—believe it or not, nerds, some people DON’T find that inherently interesting.) JOHNNY MNEMONIC’s portrayal was far less risible than what we get in, say, HACKERS (or even some episodes of NCIS), and even though it wasn’t as ambitious as the philosophi-cool imagery of THE MATRIX, I don’t see why we should pat ourselves on the back for giggling at 1995 tech. Those with a low tolerance for dopeyness, though, had best watch out.
If you’ve never seen this movie….then, well, I’ve pretty much spoiled all the best parts for you. But in any case, this seemingly-overlooked (or historically-maligned) mid-90’s treasure is worth a solid two dollars. Log on, tune in, and drop out.