A few months ago during my last semester of school, my screenwriting professor gifted everyone in the class with a package filled with books, music, and DVDs, telling us that the contents of these packages would be “everything we need” both in the class and, dare I say, in life in general. Amongst my collection of goods was a copy of the 1995 Keanu Reeves cyber-punk vehicle (but not that 90s Reeves cyber-punk vehicle) Johnny Mnemomic that I finally watched this week (it was a busy semester and summer).
The Plot: The world of 2021 is a dismal and grim, controlled by massive global businesses and ravaged by a deadly disease called NAS that has no known cure. Information too sensitive to be sent over the Internet is carried instead in hard drives installed in the brains of agents called Couriers. When Johnny (Keanu Reeves, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, other things that aren’t my favorite movie of all time) is given data that could bring down evil corporation Pharmakom by a team of scientists, he finds himself on the run from corporate goons, the Yakuza, and Dolph Lundgren as an Assassin Priest (Dolph Lundgren in a wig). With the help of cyborg bodyguard Jane (Dina Meyer), rogue doctor Spider (former frontman of Back Flag and general punk elder statesman Henry Rollins), and a group of low-tech rebels called—ugh—the Lo-Teks led by J-Bone (Ice-T), Johnny needs to get the data out of his head before the info overload kills him, and hopefully recover his stolen childhood memories along the way.
Johnnmy Mnenomic feels very of its time. From the techno, industrial, and grunge inflected soundtrack, to the flowing black leather trench coats that pepper the film, to the depiction of the Internet as a kaleidoscopic bad-CGI game thing place this movie pretty squarely in the mid 1990s; a fact that is in turns charming and kind of distracting. Rather than feeling like a startling view of our technology-obsessed future, the film felt more like a relic 90s counterculture. This is due in part to the aforementioned choices in soundtrack, but also due to the curious slang used throughout the film and in the way technology is presented. Whereas a film like Blade Runner feels timeless even if the technology isn’t of the sort we use now, the tech here looks just too close to what people would actually be using in ’95 to really sell the future aspect.
Right from the start, the viewer is given a lot of information to process. Johnny Mnenomic opens with a title crawl that explains a lot of the background information about evil corporations, NAS, and the Lo-Teks, a move that is generally frowned upon unless you are Star Wars or the old serials that inspired it. While this is probably a tempting move for sci-fi films perhaps looking to cut costs of filming this background info—and probably with no small part being a reference to a certain space opera trilogy mentioned above—it forces the viewer to focus on too many things at once without the aid of visual cues. I actually forgot about the deadly future disease until about halfway through the film when it is revealed that Jane, Johnny’s bodyguard has the disease. This wouldn’t bother me if it didn’t seem like there were easy ways to visually convey this info. How hard/ expensive would it be to show an evil businessman selling overpriced meds to a frail and diseased NAS patient? This is indicative of most of the story problems throughout the film, as characters tend to spout a lot of techno-jargon without really tethering it to something tangible, resulting in some confusing detours in what is an otherwise straightforward chase film, resulting in some weird beats. Tense chases and action set pieces are punctuated by scenes of Keanu Reeves using a VR helmet and gloves to surf the Internet, which seems like it would be kind of tiring.
The cast navigates these technobabble pratfalls pretty admirably, for the most part. Keanu Reeves has been a cultural punching bag for almost as long as I have been able to think critically about film, with jokes about his acting style belonging to that same pantheon of tired jokes people need to give a rest along with Aquaman jokes and Anchorman quotes. Yes, his acting is often wooden or strange, but in this case it seems pretty fitting for the character. Playing a man whose had most of his early life taken from him, it makes sense that his dialogue and slang would have a hollowness of a man without a past trying to emulate the emotion he sees around him. Did I laugh way harder than I should have when he inexplicably shouts “I WANT ROOM SERVICE!” while standing atop a pile of garbage in what’s supposed to be his emotional climax? Yes, but it makes sense for the character. Unnecessary romance with Johnny aside, Dina Meyer’s Jane is a pretty capable, tough character when she’s not falling all over Johnny because the script says so. The other cast members treat the film with varying degrees of seriousness. Takeshi Kitano’s conflicted CEO villain has a solid character arc that is not given nearly enough time to develop, while Denis Akiyama plays his Yakuza king with mustache-twirling evil. Dolph Lundgren, the big bad of the film, essentially runs around shouting faux-Christian nonsense as he stabs people in the hands clearly, flagrantly not giving a shit what’s going on around him (this was his last film before the Expendables, unsurprisingly). My favorite characters are easily the two musicians-cum-actors of the film. Henry Rollins essentially playing Dr. Henry Rollins in oversized nerd glasses (all his tattoos uncovered) and Ice-T gleefully playing a rebel leader in a gloriously crazy costume.
It’s pretty clear that Johnny Mnenomic was a film that was intended to be a much stranger bird that was told to sit up and fly straight by a studio. Gibson has apparently lamented studio meddling in the past, claiming that the film was re-cut and streamlined for general audiences; a fact that I would believe. This is a film that ends with Keanu Reeves and a cyborg dolphin traveling through the Internet to upload a cure for a super disease, for god’s sake. It’s a shame too. There’s a lot of cool stuff embedded into Johnny Mnemonic that doesn’t get a chance to shine in an attempt to fit everything into a 98 minute frame. To use the Blade Runner comparison again, it’s like the sub-par theatrical cut without the benefit of the masterful director’s cut to make up for it.
Johnny Mnemonic is a weird movie that is not allowed to be as weird as it should be. It’s a film that gives us industrial opera and cyborg dolphins but drowns them in muddled exposition and a cast that’s not always on the same page. It’s a frequently entertaining sci-fi film, but not a particularly memorable one.