GORE IN THE STORE
JOHNNY MNEMONIC ***
Directed by Robert Longo.
Starring Keanu Reeves, Dolph Lundgren, Ice T, Henry Rollins, Takeshi Kitano.
Sci-fi/Thriller/Action, USA/Canada, 92 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on Digital Platforms by Vertigo Releasing on the 10th May 2021
In 1995, despite the allure of seeing a young Keanu Reeves as the human ass-kicking equivalent of a USB stick teaming up with a cyberpunk dolphin, JOHNNY MNEMONIC failed to attract audiences and was a critical and commercial flop (it probably didn’t help that no-one knew how to pronounce or spell the second bit of the title). However, now that it’s 2021 (the year that the film takes place) Vertigo Releasing are celebrating its 25th birthday with a digital HD release in the UK, so perhaps it’s time for an overdue re-evaluation.
Boasting a screenplay by Cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson, adapting his own novel of the same name, the film follows Johnny (Keanu Reeves) a courier who transports sensitive data inside his own brain. However, his latest job for a group of scientists goes awry when the data they give him exceeds his storage capacity meaning that within a few days he will suffer permanent damage unless he gets the data extracted in time. However, that’s not his only problem, the Yakuza and an incredibly powerful megacorporation don’t want the data getting to the client…they want Johnny’s head.
Reeves headlines an unusual cast which includes a Japanese superstar (Takeshi Kitano), two musicians (Henry Rollins, Ice-T), a sinister genre favourite (Udo Kier) and, most bizarrely, Dolph Lundgren in his last cinematically released movie of the 90s as a long-haired crazed preacher who fights using a crucifix shaped knife and shepherd’s crook. Oh, and a dolphin.
Reeves nowadays is firmly associated with sci-fi and martial arts action after his hugely successful turns in THE MATRIX (which came 4 years after JOHNNY) and JOHN WICK franchises. In some ways JOHNNY MNEMONIC seems like a faltering dry run for this latter part of his career. He had previously mostly been in dramas and comedies, with the exception of two big action films (POINT BREAK and SPEED), and the stoic, black suited man with a zen level of focus that he plays in JOHNNY fits in more with his latter star image than with the more traditional wise cracking everyman he’d played in his previous two action films.
I find Reeves a charming screen presence but I think most will agree that he’s not the most versatile or compelling of actors. When used in the right project his deadpan earnestness can work great but then other times he simply seems out of place. His performance in this falls a little in the latter category, with some of his line deliveries coming across as comical when I don’t think that they were intended that way.
The year of this film’s release, 1995, saw two other big Hollywood movies trying to tackle the newly emerging web, THE NET and HACKERS, and they were similarly greeted with lacklustre reviews and disappointing box office receipts. In some ways these three films were ahead of their time and predicted current trends, and in many other ways they are widely off base, but the distance we have from their original release now gives them an extra quaint charm when looking back at them.
JOHNNY MNEMONIC has seen a slight upturn in its reputation recently with audiences nostalgically revisiting movies from their youth. However, you’d be hard pressed to say that it is a legitimately good film, but it is certainly quirky fun that zips along at a brisk 90 minutes, and the nostalgia of seeing the 1990’s prediction of the technological future is certainly endearing. It’s not a forgotten classic but it is a pleasant slice of 90’s escapist cheese if that’s what you are in the mood for.