Watching Johnny Mnemonic is akin to watching a train wreck in the sense that the train goes off the rails, flips twelve or thirteen times and then explodes in a massive conflagration akin to the sum total of all explosions in Michael Bay flicks. It’s that bad.
Based (and I use that term loosely) on the William Gibson story of the same name, the film takes all the good in Gibson’s story and scratches it out in favor of a Hollywood love story and corporate greed. Johnny Mnemonic bears little resemblance to the story it sprang from, much to the film’s detriment. (More on that later.)
Johnny (Keanu Reeves) is an information courier in the future. Since this is a movie featuring Technologically Advanced Dystopia, Johnny has neural implants that allow him to upload data to his head. He takes a job transporting data from Asia to Newark, New Jersey – insert your own Hell joke here – and manages to massively overload his implants. He has 24 hours to extract the data or his neural implants will enter an advanced state of seepage and kill him. It puts a major crimp in Johnny’s plans that the data he has stuffed in his brain is the cure for a deadly disease that’s infected mass amounts of the world population. An evil corporation named PharmaCom realizes that the cure they were holding will diminish their profits, since curing a disease is cheaper than treating the symptoms. They hire the Yakuza to cut off Johnny’s head. Add in a bodyguard named Jane and Johnny’s adventures around town become the explosive, shoot-y variety.
The movie is gaudy by even the standards of the ’90’s. The visual effects of what the Internet looks like are over the top even in those days, using bright neon colors and geometric shapes. It looks and feels like someone’s interpretation of the Internet through the design aesthetic of Body Glove clothing.
What makes the movie truly memorable is the insane supporting cast it’s got going on. Udo Kier, Dolph Lundgren (as a nutso street preacher!), John Spencer, Ice T (!) and Henry Rollins (!!) are all there. It’s downright bizarre. Lundgren plays a crazy preacher on call for the Yakuza who wields weapons like a cross-knife. No, really. And Rollins, he of the screaming anger and years of tours with punk band Black Flag (and later, Rollins Band and spoken word), plays a doctor named Spider. Ice-T plays the leader of a gang called the Lo-Teks who aren’t low-tech in the slightest.
It’s really Reeves and Dina Meyer as the bodyguard Jane who play their roles with such a serious bent that it’s unintentionally comic. The screenwriting doesn’t help, because let’s face it: Keanu Reeves will never be a world class actor. A great guy, sure, but not a great actor. And the following rant does him no favors at all:
What starts out as a futuristic thriller devolves into complete and total insanity. Somehow, even though both characters are completely devoid of personality, Johnny and Jane fall in love. Henry Rollins sacrifices his life so that Johnny and Jane can escape. (That’s always where the movie lost me, when Dolph Lundgren takes out Henry Rollins. Does. Not. Compute.) Johnny and Jane make their way to Lo-Tek heaven where a Navy-trained dolphin helps Johnny hack his own brain to broadcast the cure for this terrible disease to everyone on the planet.
A NAVY-TRAINED DOLPHIN HELPS JOHNNY HACK HIS OWN BRAIN.
It’s like some sort of Hollywood exec had an acid-trip and watched Discovery Science and came up with this idea. (Jones the Navy-trained dolphin is in the story, but it’s still weird. Weirder, actually, since the dolphin’s addicted to smack, but it makes sense in the context of the actual story.)
The last twenty minutes or so come off as entirely bizarre, too bizarre to be real or imagined, and it doesn’t help that Ice-T is playing Ice-T and Dina Meyer and Keanu Reeves are running around, emoting like blocks of ice, or that you realize the sum total of your investment in this movie rests on whether or not a fucking dolphin can help Johnny out or not.
In the story, Johnny acknowledges that he’s like a “bucket of water” that’s constantly emptied and refilled. He’s tired of that existence, so he goes to Jones to get the data out of his head and instead of sending it out, Johnny, Molly (the Jane character in the story) and Jones sit on it. Instead, Johnny and Jones hack out faint traces of previous jobs Johnny took from his neural implants and blackmail his former clients with the data. Johnny and Molly become Lo-Teks, do whatever they want and upgrade Jones to a better tank and score him some heroin whenever he needs it. I’m not kidding in the slightest. And it makes more sense than what the movie gives us.
Gibson’s story is a bleak and brutal piece of work and while I understand that movies are made all the time that don’t adhere to the original works they stemmed from, Johnny Mnemonic feels drastically incomplete and wrong for not incorporating a lot more of Gibson’s edge to it as well as shearing a lot of the good stuff from the work.
That being said, Mnemonic is a fun relic to watch for the overacting and the gaudy set pieces, the numerous strange and weird actors that pop up in odd places and the general cheesiness of it all. It’s a major Hollywood production that’s cheese-laden and wallows in its own overblown grotesqueries and, if memory serves me correctly, bombed at the box office. It’s a weird movie to watch and it’s quite a bit of fun to laugh at and enjoy in a hideous, post-mortem sense.
However, if there’s anyone out there that unironically enjoys this movie, I do not want to know. Good heavens, let me remain ignorant.
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