When asked to name the high point in Keanu Reeves’ career, most people will likely answer The Matrix. But four years earlier, at a time when the Internet was a new concept to many people, Johnny Mnemonic, his first foray into cinematic cyberspace was far less successful. Based on a William Gibson short story, this outdated work of dime-store dystopianism desperately wants to be Blade Runner but plays more like cybercamp than cyberpunk.
Studio: TriStar Pictures (distributed by Image Entertainment)
Length: 98 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Languages: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Film Release Date: May 26, 1995
Disc Release Date: June 14, 2011
Review Date: August 22, 2011
“I want ROOM SERVICE”!
2.5/5 (add half a point for camp value)
In the year 2021, corporations have taken the place of governments in a technocratic society, especially one large firm known as Pharmacom, and information is now transmitted through human couriers with implants in their brain. Johnny (Keanu Reeves) is one such courier; he makes pretty good money as a courier, but having the storage chip of a whopping 80 GB implanted in his brain came at a price: his childhood memories. An Asian client has offered a great deal of money to transfer valuable information into him so that he can afford the operation to remove the chip and regain his memories. The trouble is, there are others who want that information as well, specifically the Yakuza and a man known only as Takahashi (Takeshi Kitano), and they are willing to kill Johnny to get it. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he is afflicted with Nerve Attenuation Syndrome, a disease that causes seizures and will kill him within 2 days if he doesn’t get the implant removed. He must escape to the free city of Newark, which is ruled by the LoTeks, a group of anti-establishment hackers led by J-Bone (Ice-T). Here, Johnny is supposed to meet his agent, Ralfi (Udo Kier), to arrange for the surgery, but Ralfi has other plans. Fortunately, a woman named Jane (Dina Meyer) saves Johnny, who hires her as a bodyguard after that. Jane also has NAS, and after they discover that Johnny’s info belongs to Pharmacom, they both must find her friend Spider (Henry Rollins) to get the data out of his brain. Once again, the Yakuza has other plans, and it’s up to the LoTeks to help the two of them. But when Johnny has to weigh the risks and benefits of the surgery—it may risk his own brain functions—he’s not so sure he wants to go through with it.
Johnny Mnemonic could have been a hit. Its release came at a time when the Internet was relatively new to the majority of people, and Keanu Reeves was a hot property in Hollywood thanks to Speed. Additionally, it was based on a short story by William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer and the Sprawl trilogy, and he wrote the screenplay. But success eluded the film, and it’s easy to see why. It’s so ridiculous that instead of becoming a great work of cyberpunk it turns into a work of cybercamp. Reeves’ performance has two flavors: off and on, and when he’s on he’s turned up to eleven. Unfortunately, the times when he needs to be on, when he’s delivering humorous “action movie” dialogue, he’s off. None of the other performers are much better. As a street preacher who wants the data, although the film does a poor job explaining why, Dolph Lundgren is hilariously awful, while Ice-T is just plain cold, and Henry Rollins is so stiff he makes Keanu Reeves look like Daffy Duck. As the female lead, Dina Meyer is just indifferent; she and her co-star have no chemistry together. The cast is the least of the film’s problems. In the 15 years since the film’s release, we have already exceeded this film’s view of what is considered high-tech: hard drives are now measured in terabytes while the TV I watched the film on was more sophisticated than the 4x3 CRT ones seen in the film. And the use of electronic gloves to search the Internet reminded me of Nintendo’s failed Power Glove controller. While the sets are very well designed and constructed, and the computer animation certainly has a unique abstract aesthetic, the special effects overall range from competent to cheesy. Even the fight sequences are cheesy; the film resorts to sleight-of-hand editing techniques to cover up for the absence of skilled fight choreography. It never fully explores the ethical issues of Johnny’s ambivalence about wanting the surgery, while its tired “Corporations Are Bad!” message is handled with the subtlety of an Afterschool Special in the hands of first-time—and last-time—director Robert Longo. It plays like a bargain basement Blade Runner clone or an inferior prototype of The Matrix—which gave Reeves much better material to work with and, ironically, owes something of a debt to Gibson—than a meaningful work of science fiction. Part of the problems stem from the way TriStar Pictures handled the film. According to William Gibson, they cut the film heavily before release, and the originally intended version is only available in Japan today. Considering the film’s cold reception here, we are unlikely to see that version get a release any time soon.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its shortcomings, the film has a great many moments of unintended hilarity, from Udo Kier’s drag queen bodyguard to some of the unbelievably silly dialogue. Viewed as camp, it is at least more entertaining than the abysmal and incoherent Showgirls, which came out the same year and has been embraced as such by filmgoers.
Presented at its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and encoded with AVC, the transfer has very little wrong with it. The film is appropriately dark and subdued in color with mild grain that Image and Sony have wisely left alone. The picture is pretty sharp throughout except for some shots that use optical effects.
The film’s DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack gives the film a huge kick. The surround channels are almost perpetually in use from both the sound effects and Brad Fiedel’s score. Clarity and fidelity are first-rate.
The film’s theatrical trailer is presented in 1080p.
In the version seen everywhere but Japan, Johnny Mnemonic is a hodgepodge of bad acting, cheesy fight scenes, and a view of the future that’s outdated in some ways and tiresome in others. Nevertheless, its overall ineptitude as a film may provide moments of laugh-out-loud unintentional comedy. But it looks and sounds quite good in its Blu-Ray debut.