JOHNNY MNEMONIC (1995)
Directed by Robert Longo
Johnny is a mnemonic courier of data. Wet-wired with an implant in his head, which allows him to store precious, secretive data received from one client to smuggle to another, Johnny is in a very lucrative business. However, he wants out of his line of work and wants his lost memories restored. Unable to afford the process, he agrees to do some final jobs that will allow him the freedom he desires but, unfortunately for Johnny, his next job might be his last. Overloading his memory capacity with more data than it can handle, Johnny has a limited amount of time to get the data out of his head before the overload leakage will kill his brain forever. With a missing part of the key preventing him from unlocking and download the data from his head, and Yakuza hitmen on his tail looking to decapitate him and steal the secrets he carries, Johnny needs every bit of help he can get before it’s too late.
As a self-confessed Keanu fan, I’ve always had JOHNNY MNEMONIC on my radar but for some reason have never seen it… until now! Set in the year 2021, it’s quite fitting that I now get to see it as it receives a HD digital release, 26 years after its initial appearance on screen.
Based on the work by William Gibson, JOHNNY MNEMONIC is a cyberpunk, sci-fi actioner that was way ahead of its time upon its release and holds up well today even if some of the CGI is dated (which is to be expected). It’s thought-provoking, intelligent, incredibly stylish and has a sprinkle of camp humour in which surprisingly works well. Keanu takes the lead as the titular character as we venture into Gibson’s world where corporations run the globe, democracy has been eroded, and the last line of defence is a resistance army consisting of hackers, data-pirates and guerrilla rebels.
Keanu emanates a quiet coolness as Johnny, an experienced data smuggler, dressed in his smart suits and armed with defensive tech knowing full well that wherever he goes, trouble usually follows, but this job is different. Uploading data almost double his capacity, he knows it’s a death sentence unless he can get it out of his head quickly but his longing to return to a normal life is what fuels his choice. How is he to know that it’d all go pear-shaped before completion?
Like in Speed, Keanu’s character is against the clock which ramps up the intensity as he traverses Newark – a far cry from his beloved travels around China and Japan – with bad guys seemingly at every turn. With Johnny on the run, we get to explore the district and the people who inhabit it, which is a joy to behold in itself. The setting has an incredible style to it, with the LowTek community salvaging everything they can, living out of prefab containers and old cars in the ruins of an old bridge. Even the appearance of these people are quite distinctive, looking like they themselves are made up anything they could find. Ice-T stars as the chilled, strategic leader J-Bone who Johnny first meets early on when they both save each other’s life, but that’s not the only time the two will cross.
Joining Johnny on his quest to free his mind of the data is Jane, played by Starship Troopers actress, Dina Meyer. Jane is a wannabe bodyguard who, due to suffering from Nerve Attenuation Syndrome (the NAS plague which has affected thousands), is unable to get an actual job as a bodyguard with fixer, Ralfi (Udo Kier). It doesn’t stop her from trying though, much against her friend Spider’s (Henry Rollins) advice.
Quite the interesting flip on convention, it seems that women are more effective as hired muscle than men are. Though, strangely enough, Jane doesn’t do that much protecting after her initial meeting with Johnny, often finding herself being rescued instead. Paired with him throughout much of the film, Dina shows the other side of life for Johnny, one that he’s not lived or endured. When he finds out what data is trapped in his head could have a lasting impact on Jane and many more, this once self-centred, city agent is now faced with an moral dilemma. Meyer holds her own as a strong, female character in the film alongside Johnny, often providing the strength and reassurance that Johnny needs. Usually he flies solo but with what he’s enduring, having Jane to rely on helps him soldier on. Unsurprisingly, she ultimately becomes the love interest but this is only slightly touched upon and isn’t shoved down your throat. Given everything the pair have been through, it’s not surprising there’s a bit of sexual chemistry between them.
As I mentioned earlier in the review, JOHNNY MNEMONIC isn’t afraid of having a bit of fun with scenes and lines throughout the movie but the best has to come from a hired assassin. Hidden behind a beard and long hair, Dolph Lundgren stars as Street Preacher; a religious nut who’s had that many augmentations and implants, he’s definitely more tech than human yet has a fixation on Christ and sees himself as a deliverer of God’s wrath… for the right fee. He’s a fearsome character, despite the hilarity of it, due to his overpowering strength and size. With Lundgren’s physique, I think they cast wisely and Lundgren seems to be having a ball playing Street Preacher with such camp delight. Though he feels a little shoe-horned into the movie, his presence is still welcomed and is without a doubt a memorable character, even if purely for the surreal absurdity of it.
Despite its £26 million budget, JOHNNY MNEMONIC is a much-more intimate affair than you’d expect and tries to fit a lot of ideas into its running time but some sub-plots feel underdeveloped. The film struggles with cohesion at times but has enough to get you from A to B and is a fun experience for the most part, particularly when we get to meet a character named Jones… Decent performances from the cast, with this film serving as a nice warm-up for Keanu’s later stint in The Matrix, is what helps to carry the film along with its magnificent aesthetic. Although not a perfect movie by any means, JOHNNY MNEMONIC has plenty of substance to captivate viewers and keep you entertained throughout the running time with its sci-fi concepts perhaps not a million miles away from our impending reality.