Johnny Mnemonic: Film Review

Johnny Mnemonic is a very flawed film. It’s not a garbage film that other aspiring cyberpunk movies from this time can be, but it is a movie that significantly stumbles in its execution. That said, there are chunks of this movie that help make it still a pretty enjoyable film.

The premise goes from William Gibson’s short story of the same name (with Gibson writing the screenplay). Johnny Mnemonic follows a Mnemonic Courier named Johnny (Keanu Reeves). Mnemonic Couriers transport information physically via headware memory that can’t be trusted to be transported over the net. However, Johnny had to give up some of his long term memory – particularly memories of his childhood – to get the implant, and he wants out. He wants the implant removed and his memories restored.

Johnny’s fixer, Ralfie (Udo Kier), will set up the surgery, but he needs him to do One Last Job to get the money to do the procedure. And just like every other time in crime fiction where the words “One Last Job” come up, everything goes spectacularly pear shaped. First the payload is larger than Johnny’s storage can carry, even with a doubler – which means that if he doesn’t get it out of his head in 24 hours he’s dead and the data is corrupted. Then before the encryption key can be transmitted to the destination, the client gets attacked by the Yakuza. Then the physical copy of the encryption key gets cut in half, with Johnny having one of the three images, and the Yakuza having one of the other.

On paper, this is all honestly really good. This could make for a tight cyberpunk crime thriller. The problem is that the execution is bad, for a lot of reasons. First off, putting aside studio meddling and recuts and the director not having the final cut on the film, I don’t think director Robert Longo and Gibson himself (who partnered heavily with Longo in the creative process in pre-production), really understood the scope of what they were making. Going from Wikipedia articles on the production, the film was originally meant to be a $1.5 million art film piece. To be blunt – I think that movie would not have worked.

Yes, Reservoir Dogs had a similar budget, and had some fairly well established stars (Keitel had worked with Scorsese, Tim Roth had done Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, and Steve Buscemi had done several roles for the Cohen Brothers), and is also a crime film. It’s also not a science fiction movie. Some of this, you can fake, like with Johnny’s neural jack. With cyberpunk, particularly with Gibson, we expect to see cyberspace, which means mid-90s CGI and lots of it, which isn’t cheap. And that’s without getting into the heroin addicted, cybernetically augmented hacker dolphin in the room.

Still from Johnny Mnemonic, with Jane, Johnny, and J-Bone in front of the tank of Jones, the heroin addicted cybernetically augmented hacker Dolphin.
That’s not just a pithy remark.

So, in short, Longo and Gibson may not have initially understood the scope of the work they were trying to create, and the amount of work (and with it money) that would be necessary. That doesn’t diminish their issues with the distributor re-cutting the film. However, even looking at the film in the international cut – which is closer to the director’s vision – it’s still got some pretty fundamental issues.

That said, films where the creator’s reach exceeds their grasp can be quite enjoyable – and this is definitely one of those movies, and even some of those moments can be found in the production design and writing.

To be clear, Johnny Mnemonic nails some of the core themes of cyberpunk beyond the cosmetic elements like cyberspace and cybernetic augmentation. The elements of Cyberpunk of “High Tech and Low Life” and “The Street Finds Uses For Things” come through clearly. This is probably best exemplified with not only razorgirl Jane (Dina Meyer – taking the place of Molly Millions, whose rights are tied up with Neuromancer), and the LowTeks – who are running pirate TV broadcasts to counter corporate propaganda, and help Johnny get the data out of his head, but also the street doc Spider (Henry Rollins).

Spider’s character leads into the anti-capitalist themes as well – with megacorp PharmaKom sitting on the cure for AIDS/Cancer-analog NAS and preferring to sell treatments instead, because they can make more money that way, while street docs like Spider run underground clinics to treat the masses (like a hospital combined with a cyberpunk analog of AIDS buyers clubs, and ultimately make the gamble of trying to steal the cure from PharmaKom’s servers in order to save their patients.

Henry Rollins as Spider affixes some sensor equipment to Johnny's head.

And there are parts of this, all of this, that work. Henry Rollins nails the character of Spider as a doctor who is stuck working outside the system because the system doesn’t work, but is faced with a spectacularly overwhelming problem, which is in turn leaving him overwhelmed. Similarly, Ice-T is perfectly cast as J-Bone, the leader of the LowTek’s and the voice of their broadcasts.

And then there’s Dolph Lundgren as Street Preacher, the heavily cybered assassin/evangelist who likes to crucify people before he kills him. Lundgren is clearly having the time of his life in this role. He’s played villains before. He’s played characters who have had lots of dialog before (like Dark Angel). However, he is having a ball with the material in this movie, and it’s a bummer that his career went into direct-to-video territory for the next 15 years.

I will even cut some slack for the “I want room service!” speech from Johnny. The speech is delivered incredibly well by Keanu, and considering that Johnny has had what is undoubtedly the shittiest day of his life, where what was meant to be one quick job has been fucked presumably beyond all hope of recovery (it recovers), having a personal meltdown feels completely believable, and honestly he’d seem less human as a character if we didn’t get a scene like that. Is it a character from a position of privilege bemoaning his loss of privilege? Absolutely. It’s also a person who is facing impending death in a really unpleasant situation bemoaning that fact.

To be clear – this film could absolutely could have been better. It should have been better. But it’s not a bad film. It’s not great. It’s not terrible either, and I don’t regret any of the times that I’ve seen it.

Johnny Mnemonic has received a DVD release and is available digitally from Amazon.com. Both of those releases are the US cut, though some DVD releases have the scenes from the International release as deleted scenes. The version on streaming is the US cut. In any case, buying anything through those links helps to support the site.

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