25 February 2022

52 for '22: Johnny Mnemonic

Movie: Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Method: Netflix Streaming

Why Did I Watch This?

I guess call me a Keanu Reeves completionist. This had always escaped my purview, despite being made in between huge Keanu action hits like Speed (1994) and The Matrix (1999). This obviously has much less of a cultural cache, but it's a 90s Keanu action movie that was on Netflix. Also, a cool title. I knew it wasn't that great, so perfect to both finish this series and not worry too much about deep invested thoughts.

What Did I Know?

It's Keanu, in the 90s, in an action film, and had something to do with computers or cyberpunk. That was really it. Mnemonic means memory, so I figured it had something to do with him remembering some crap. Which is kind of true.

How Was it?

This is not a good movie. Let's get that clear right away. There is a reason why this is largely forgotten. But it does actually have a cool premise and some interesting moments. The idea that in the far-flung future of 2021 corporations rule everything and the world is decimated by a brain virus that is caused by overstimulation of computer and television screens. Loteks are rebels that resist technology and specialized couriers smuggle information in their brains to people who pay for it.

I'm now not sure what the original opening crawl was, some say this, others say this. The former is definitely clunkier, but fits the insane tone and direction of this film a bit more. Anyway, we get to things pretty quick. Keanu is looking for one last job and so some business folks upload way too much data into his brain for him to transport across the world. If he doesn't get it out of his brain in a few days, he'll die. Simple enough, and they organically get to a decent action story with a ticking clock.

There are always things to laugh at about the future. Keanu's brain upgrades to 160 gigabytes, and gets overloaded at 320. That's about what my phone handles now. They correctly pin Beijing as an origin point, but for some reason the big USA data hub is Newark. It takes a bit to unravel, and it never feels like a pressing point of the story, although in the end (SPOILER), it turns out that's what he's transporting, but the degenerative disease caused by too much interaction with technology is hard-handed but not altogether inaccurate as a metaphor for current life. It's amazing how fearful we were of this stuff in 1995.

It's ultimately an anti-technology film. Our heroes are a bunch of luddites, and the villains control the screens and internet. Again, I suppose that's not totally far off where we are today. This feels like a mash-up of a lot of films that did memory, technology, and internet better, like Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), and The Matrix all at once. It particularly feels like a warm-up to the latter, but that might just be because Keanu has a big presence.

The cast beyond Keanu is shocking. Ice-T shows up, nearly unrecognizable, except for his voice, as the leader of the Loteks, with big dreads and face tattoos. A little Battlefield Earth (2000)-y. Dolph Lundgren shows up as a maniacal cyborg killer preacher, who was apparently shoe-horned in by the studio for some reason. Udo Kier is Keanu's handler who dies very early on. And Dina Meyer from Starship Troopers (1997) shows up! She's ostensibly the love interest, but has enough of her own story and agency to feel necessary. Actually, it's not really like they hooked up in the end or saved her or anything. Isn't it weird that all these forgotten classics have progressive female roles...

There is also a big Yakuza presence. I didn't recognize any of the actors but Takeshi Kitano is a big bad with some depth, as he mourns the loss of his daughter and ultimately repents. It was like as if Palpatine, not Vader finds hope at the end. Denis Akiyama is his Vader and he has a cool laser whip that comes out of his thumb. There are all these hints that he "found a use for his disfigurement" and stuff, but it seemed pretty cool. He's a relentless villain and fun to watch.

Oh, and Henry Rollins is a cyberpunk scientist for some reason. He seems so miscast, like a Dr. Dolph Lundgren, ironically enough. But it somehow works. He brings a lot of bruh intensity and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

This whole movie is about Keanu trying to get this data out of his head, and he plays his character with a solid amount of angst. In the proto-Matrix way it seems like it took a while for him to zen out as Neo. But there are many Internet scenes, most notably this one:

First, I love how rare computers are in 2021. But this Internet...what more is there to say? Virtual reality was cool in the mid-90s, except for that it wasn't actually all that cool. I do wish we surfed the net like this today, though. It does visualize what essentially comes down to hacking in a visually interesting way, though, which is fun. I think that people just really couldn't wrap their 90s heads around becoming a wholly different person online represented by an avatar. Nowadays every neighborhood kid has a finsta catfishing their grandparents out of their hard-earned war bond money.

So, why didn't this work? Well, it certainly feels like a slightly expensive B-movie. Keanu's acting is more Bram Stoker than Matrix, the plot is a little clunky and complicated without great pay-off, although it's ultimately just a little derivative. It's fun that there's like three distinct villains who close in on them, and the sets are pretty fun and imaginative. The third act definitely drags and I felt myself nodding off. It's hard to keep this plate spinning.

Robert Longo is an artist who directed a few music videos, but this remains his solo movie effort. I wish he had done some more and proved himself with a bigger budget, especially when cinematic technology caught up to his vision. Because this movie is real weird and corny, but it's also fantastically creative and unique. It has a sincere Terry Gilliam Brazil (1985) feel with its practical sets, props, and costumes. I'd like to think this would be a solid candidate for a modern remake, at least one that invests in the characters and concepts while updating and streamlining the plot, adding pathos where it needs to be, and throwing some cash at better effects.

But also, the title is so hard to read and say. I have not once typed it in correctly. It's a bit of a shame that this is generally remembered as a worse version of The Matrix, but it's so true. That film came along and just did everything better, even down to the soundtrack. It's fun to watch us grapple with the Internet in the 90s, and although at the time this seemed like all hyperbole, a lot of this crap has come true, just in more subtle ways. Or not, our society is wrecked.

I generally liked this, it's probably worth watching if you like Keanu or 90s cyberpunk. It won't change your life, but it was an entertaining 96 minutes. On to the next one!

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