When we talk about JOHNNY MNEMONIC now it’s usually with a smirk. Rapid advances in the technology that it speculated about have made some of its vision of 2021 goofily dated. Star Keanu Reeves (BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA) was still solidifying as an action star and brought a funny surfer dude lilt to his slick underworld messenger character Johnny. And even at the time it was considered a failed moviefication of William Gibson’s “cyberpunk” style of sci-fi, which had a strong reputation as a cool, edgy type of literature as opposed to the old timey painted cover fantasies of previous eras. But they turned it into what was seen as some cheesy Hollywood bullshit.
Since the mid ’80s, tales have been told of the brave souls trying to adapt Gibson’s debut novel Neuromancer into a major motion picture (directors attached have included Chuck Russell, Chris Cunningham, Joseph Kahn and Vincenzo Natali). But this short story adaptation, directed by installation artist/occasional music video director Robert Longo and written by Gibson himself, beat it to the screen by 20 years and counting. They just had to replace the mirror-eyed “razor girl” character Molly Millions in the story with the regular-eyed Jane, because Molly was tied up with the rights for Neuromancer, since she’s in that too.
Gibson and Longo originally set out to make a $1.5 million black and white sci-fi noir, but couldn’t get the funding, so they agreed to a $20 million version with TriStar Pictures, whose other productions that year were THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, HIDEAWAY, 3 NINJAS KNUCKLE UP, JURY DUTY, MAGIC IN THE WATER, DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, NEVER TALK TO STRANGERS and JUMANJI. As artistic types and Hollywood rookies they may have been out of their depth trying to make a summer blockbuster with the star of SPEED, and Longo didn’t get his cut anyway. It turned out undeniably messy.
Watching it two decades on, none of that has changed, but it may be easier to enjoy as an odd collision between the art world and b-movies. 1995 was the magical moment when these four things coincided:
1. Reeves was beginning his time as a marquee name, and already using his clout to launch unusual projects from audacious newcomers like this.
2. Second-billed Dolph Lundgren was trying his hand at a weird supporting villain in a major release right in the middle of a string of under-the-radar action vehicles. His last three had been JOSHUA TREE, PENTATHLON and MEN OF WAR, the following three were HIDDEN ASSASSIN, SILENT TRIGGER and THE PEACEKEEPER. Here he plays Street Preacher, an assassin-for-hire who dresses as Jesus and does a weird combination of proselytizing and one-liners as he stabs people with his crucifix-shaped daggers.
3. Takeshi Kitano (credited just as “Takeshi”) was trying his hand at appearing in an American picture. This was only a few movies after SONATINE. He plays the head of the American wing of an international pharmaceutical corporation, and also a Yakuza, I think.
4. Ice-T, still respected as a rapper (though his last album, Home Invasion, had been under-recognized), was spending that year playing weird characters in weird sci-fi movies. This wasn’t as goofy as the kangaroo man he played in TANK GIRL, but he does have an anarchy symbol on his head and wear goggles and lead a collective of punk TV-pirates who live on a blown up bridge with a dolphin (which I have reason to believe inspired Ice to build a shark tank in his house).
Trivia: Movie characters played by Ice-T have included T-Saint, J-Bone and C-Note.
Also you’ll see Udo Kier as Johnny’s sleazy agent Ralfi, Henry Rollins as an underground cybernetics doctor/mechanic Spider, and Dina Meyer (Dizzy from STARSHIP TROOPERS) as bodyguard-for-hire Jane. So it’s a pretty good cast.
Johnny is a “mnemonic courier,” a guy who has a hard drive “wet-wired” into his brain so he can personally deliver sensitive information that they don’t want to be intercepted over a computer network. Or at least I think that’s what it’s used for, except in this case it turns out they need the information to be shared with everyone anyway, so I really don’t know what they were trying to do there. They shoulda just stuck it on bit torrent.
(I guess maybe the scientists sending this information are trying to steal it for their own profit? That must be it, but the way they’re so jumpy and suspicious they seem more like whistleblowers trying to do the right thing.)
I was thinking that now days a mnemonic courier would just be a guy with a thumb drive. Maybe he would put it in a briefcase handcuffed to himself for safety. Or maybe he’d just hide it in his sock. Johnny has an 80 gig capacity although it works as 160 gigs after he plugs in a “doubler.” I mean, that’s not much more than 3 blu-ray discs worth of storage.
I don’t know, it’s probly cool to have a hard drive in your head sometimes, finally get some use out of those digital copies that come with your DVDs and Blu-Rays. But in this case it’s pretty shitty for Johnny because
i.) the information was stolen from a corporation called PharmaKom who work with the Yakuza and send assassins to cut off his head and literally put it on ice.
ii.) He’s so desperate for the gig he lies about his capacity and takes a 230 gig file. Somehow it fits on there, but it’s leaking, whatever that means, and will kill him in a day or two if he doesn’t get it the fuck out of there.
Jane is also hard-up for work, so when she happens to see some Yakuzas catch Johnny and about to get to sawing she jumps into the fray and gets hired as his bodyguard. She takes him to Spider who takes him to J-Bone who takes him to Jones, who is a US Navy veteran who Spider believes may be the only one who can help them, and who also is the dolphin that I mentioned earlier.
Jones is an easily dismissable character, because most people, let’s face it, are racists against dolphins. Sure, they think they’re cute and everything, but they’re condescending about it. They can’t accept a strong, complex dolphin character like Jones. But I thinks he’s pretty cool. He has cybernetic sonar attachments that he might be able to use to get past security into Johnny’s head. It makes sense, in my opinion. The actual Navy have in fact trained dolphins and even put equipment on them. It’s a good extrapolation of current technology. In the story Jones could communicate by creating color patterns on a grid of LED lights, but in Gibson’s script he actually spoke English, with an interesting description:
The script also made it clear that (as in the short story) he was a drug addict, which from what I’ve read may’ve been referred to in Longo’s cut, but the studio may have worried that there were way too many movies about dolphins hooked on smack so they cut it out in order to stand out from the pack. I think they cut this bit:
Anyway, in the finished movie he doesn’t shoot up or talk, he just squeaks. Probly the best idea even though I want to hear what that voice would’ve sounded like.
Johnny and Jones aren’t the only ones around here who’ve been customized. It seems like most people have been. Jane has some kind of strength enhancement, Street Preacher has little plugs in his forearms like track marks, the lead assassin Shinji (Denis Akiyama, DEAD RINGERS) has cyborg thumbtips that create a laser filament between them. He can work it like a piano wire or a whip. He uses it to slash a statue, and later Ralfi, into slices. And we learn from Takahashi that he lost the original thumbs due to some shameful failure. You know Yakuzas and finger-chopping.
But being a cyborg just creates more work. They’re constantly talking about upgrades and repairs. Ralfi had been pressuring Johnny to improve his implants, and he has to get ahold of that “memory doubler” and it’s still not enough to do his job safely.
That’s the problem with man merging with technology: in that case man will constantly be in danger of obsolescence. They don’t make new models of flesh that you’re gonna be tempted to buy, but cyborg shit will be designed to be constantly replaced. Just think about those guys standing in line outside of the Apple store once every year or two in desperate need for a shiny plastic fix in their pocket. As I’m writing this I am sadly realizing that FOR SURE we are gonna be cyborgs before too long and it’s gonna be more embarrassing than cool. So let me be ahead of the curve in saying that most cyborgs are douches. Just dudes with too much money standing around looking at their robot arms and bragging about what model and operating system it is and what they’re thinking about getting next. Fuck ’em.
In the movie there’s this disease going around called NAS (Nerve Attenuation Syndrome), apparently caused by all the technology everybody uses. Seems like not an unreasonable prediction. There’s a theme of information and technology overload that is not that far off base. The disease gives Jane the shakes and should eventually kill her, except that the information in Johnny’s head turns out to be the cure. If they can just get it out.
J-Bone is the leader of the Lo-Teks. I think they’re supposed to be anti-technology, they don’t do cyborg parts, but they’re not exactly Mennonites either. They just make their hacking and pirate broadcasting set-up out of junk. They have a tower of non-flat, standard definition TVs. But also they’re kind of like urban Ewoks. Instead of a tree village they have their bridge hideout they call “Heaven.” Instead of rocks they drop exploding VW Bugs on people.
Some of the details of the world are the coolest parts of the movie. The design and fashion in the fancy hotels and stuff have aged pretty well, they still look slick. The tech he uses to upload and download (a helmet, mouthpiece, etc.) is ridiculous, but cool in that imagined-future-of-the-past type of way. The automated customs machine that x-rays him and warns him of health issues is a neat idea. And their concept of “cyberspace” is sort of an animated virtual city representation of the internet that he has to travel through using VR gloves. I like the avatar he uses, a good example of using computer animation in a stylized, abstracted kind of way instead of trying to create photo-realism.
Also I like that the main location is “The Free City of Newark.” Are there any other sci-fi movies with a futuristic metropolis in New Jersey? Not that I know of. It’s actually the birthplace of Ice-T, too, so hopefully they have a statue of him in there somewhere.
I mean, there are alot of little details that are cool, like Jane having a pink grenade, or the password for his data being a sequence of three images chosen by pushing a button and screengrabbing from TV. He gets a little print out of it, which he has to fax to someone. I guess they still use faxes in 2021. Another technology thing you might laugh at is when J-Bone is about to broadcast the cure for NAS and he says “Get your VCRs ready ’cause we got what you need.” But think of it this way. J-Bone is a Lo-Tek. I bet you anything he’s one of those guys who will try to convince you that some super rare shot-on-video backyard horror movie is the Holy Grail. And you’ll watch it with him and there’s no way you’d watch the whole thing if it was up to you but you’re afraid he’ll throw you in the dolphin tank or something so you nod your head and you’re like “Yeah, that was awesome, J-Bone! Movies now days are too slick and professional! And don’t even get me started about the CGI, I hate the CGI.”
Anyway what I’m saying is J-Bone is a VHS collector, that’s just his thing, so he forgets sometimes that most people don’t have VCRs anymore. It all checks out.
I think the worst part of the movie is the A.I. character who shows up sort of magically to tell Takahashi how the corporation screwed him. It reminds me of some earlier things like the superior Max Headroom and the inferior RoboCop: The Series, where A.I.s are faces (usually female) that appear on TV screens when they want to. Here, storywise, it just seems like a big cheat.
But Takahashi is kind of a cool character. The first thing we know about him, as he’s trying to have Johnny hunted down, is that he’s mourning the recent death of his daughter. That’s his main character trait, which is not your usual cliche for the heavy of a movie played by a guy known for playing gangsters. Actually the cut released in Japan apparently has some extra scenes with him, so maybe there was a little more to him. As is he’s lightly sketched, but I like the implied depth.
I don’ t know man, this is one of those movies that is an overall failure but has enough going for it that I enjoy digging it out every once in a while.
Reeves continued to work with audacious newcomers, leading to THE MATRIX and JOHN WICK. THE MATRIX was, of course, heavily influenced by Gibson’s work, but did a much better job of making it cinematic.
To date, Abel Ferrara’s NEW ROSE HOTEL (1998) is the only other feature film adaptation of a Gibson story, though PATTERN RECOGNITION, ARCHANGEL and of course NEUROMANCER are allegedly on their way. Gibson also co-wrote with fellow cyberpunk novelist Tom Maddox two technology-based episodes of The X-Files (“Kill Switch” and “First Person Shooter”).
Kitano made no further attempts to penetrate Hollywood unless you count BROTHER, his great 2000 film that takes place partly in the U.S. with English-speaking characters.
Longo has not directed since.
In 2014 one of the producers of La Femme Nikita and Lost Girl announced a Johnny Mnemonic TV series that has not happened. Sounds like a good idea, though. He has to do different deliveries, or it could follow the end of the short story and he blackmails his former clients with traces of information stuck in his brain. Either way he would work with Jones and the Lo-Teks would be in it and stuff, it could work I think.
Music videos by Robert Longo:
Vintage Neuromancer movie promotional video:
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.