Thursday, October 14, 2010


In my line of work I come a whole lot of science fiction - that is when I want to come across the slew of movies, done not at the blockbuster level of Star Wars or Alien or Blade Runner or one of the classics like Forbidden Planet or 2001, but at the more mid-level range that is just a notch, in subject matter or production budget or even a studio, above that of a B-movie.  Johnny Mnemonic is a 1995 science fiction film written, its original story and screenplay, by William Gibson, who was one of the primary authors behind 'cyberpunk' movement in sci-fi literature, to which Blade Runner owes a huge debt (as the film, I don't know about the book).  Maybe it's in comparison to the other great science fiction films that came out that year - Twelve Monkeys and Strange Days and even Virtuosity - that it really pales.  Or, simply, that it's just a very odd duck of a movie.

Visual flattery will get you somewhere... and then nowhere
This has mid-90's Hollywood written all over it.  By this I mean there's kind of a schitzo thing going on about it: it wants to be a smart and cutting edge movie and it has a premise that has a lot of meat on its bones about a future world where people, "Mnemonics", can store gigabytes of information in their brains and are walking hard-drives that can be plugged into and have their minds downloaded, though at severe costs to their own (obvious) mental well-being.  It has that in mind, and Gibson sure does, but it's also a dumb-stupid action movie with Keanu Reeves.  And this isn't the Keanu Reeves that works so well when he's used in his more subtle form like The Matrix or A Scanner Darkly, or by the right director in My Own Private Idaho or Devil's Advocate.  No, this is Reeves... I won't say slumming it, but doing something similar that Johnny Depp was doing at the time (i.e. Nick of Time), trying to find his footing in a studio system that saw him as a sort of oddball: a star with marquee value, but what to do with him?

In Johnny Mnemonic he gives a performance as the titular character that doesn't do the movie any favors.  Maybe it's because Johnny is skittish, nay an ass who keeps complaining about the gigabytes in his head that might kill him and then has trouble comprehending how he might have the secret cure for some virus that has ravaged the people of 2021, is hard to play to start with.  He may not need charisma, but it helps to have someone who can inject a little more personality into the framework, and Reeves doesn't pull it off.  He either looks blank-faced or contorts himself and gets enraged in such a way that other characters watch at first in bemusement then annoyance at how Johnny goes - or rather how Reeves does it.  He tries for quirks that aren't there, and when he gets angry like in such a scene that he erupts in a junkyard about why he's even there and should be at a bar eating a club sandwich drinking beer etc, that it's a showstopper.  Maybe just not the way intended.

Is it all Reeves' fault that he comes off so weird and warped here?  Maybe some of it is in the script, where Reeves has no choice but to get his character up another notch to match the other actors he's paired with - very distinct and impressionable people like Ice-T, Henry Rollins, Udo Kier, Takeshi Kitano (yes, seriously, Zatoichi!), Dolph Lundgren, who I'll get to in a moment - that he has to get his character up to that point and is cringe-worthy at that point the script dictates.  Or it's the director, Robert Longo (who, by the way, hasn't made a theatrically released feature, or anything according to IMDb, since), who doesn't take the material in general as far as it needs to go.  Or maybe it's the Hollywood thing again.  A director with full vision could take this concept, which has the nugget of brilliance to it, and Reeves as star, to some uncharted territory.

As it is it's just... lacking in some way.  A key might be how he stages action, which is nothing special, just bang-bang, reverse this and so on.  Or another facet is how he has some neat post-apocalyptic production design in post-war-zone Newark, and doesn't do a whole lot with it.  He has the sense of atmosphere up to a point, as a director of music videos, but of story?  I didn't feel the tension or wonder that should be there when a female-apparition comes to Kitano's character telling him what he should do.  It's just another special effect.  Or, simply enough to criticize the direction, the pacing feels off.  It shouldn't be, but it just is.  It's like coming up to a piece of music where half the four-piece band has it right, and the other half is off to a point were one can see the stitching in the rhythm box.

Some in the reviews have suggested that simply Gibson's material is hard to translate to film.  That may well be; I've yet to read his work, but from the looks of the subject matter he deals best in the ideas, how the technology and hard-wiring of people to other machines and can fax their data over waves.  The warring factions - the underground movement versus gangsters and especially the Yakuza - are less fascinating.  In a way this is like the lessor precursor to The Matrix, with a lower budget and less sight really on the future than that film had on technology's effect on society at large and dominance of what it means to be controlled and manipulated in the existential sense.

But why watch it then if it has such problems and a sense of Hollywood gloss and bullets and shit blowing up over the ideas?  Well, if nothing else, the supporting cast I mentioned, and Dolph Lundgren. One comparison that can be made to Blade Runner is the facet of Lundgren as this film's Rutger Hauer, only used less than Hauer in that film and with a little less acting ability.  Yet Lundgren has such an inexplicable kind of performance here and design as a character that I have to admire it on a WTF-were-they-thinking level.  He comes on the scene and is, naturally, the bad guy, but is also a kind of cult figure, with Jesus hair and a Jesus beard and preaching salvation by way of his fist and as one of the handful after Johnny that doesn't want to beat around the bush with hooking up with chords but slicing into his head to get what he's after.  Lundgren is imposing and baffling and a whole lot of fun.  The same could go for the other actors as well like Rollins and Kier if they had more to do.  Kitano fares best as a quiet villain, but only in one scene that is already weird enough where he talks in Japanese to an underling that he forces to speak English to him do we feel his threatening presence.  And that white-faced woman apparition, Jesus...

There is promise here, and it's only fulfilled as much as its ambitions will allow, which aren't much.  Without Keanu Reeves I could almost see this being made as a Sci-Fi channel movie... okay, maybe not that bad, more like those Friday night movies they used to play on HBO that were made for little and were meant to make back their buck quick.  The substance of Johnny Mnemonic is present.  Less so are the conventional bits (i.e. strange love interest for Johnny) that seemed to have been jammed in, either by the producers or studio interference or just the general thing of a first time director doing his work on it without a lot on his mind or a vision of something grander.  And yet I have to admire some of its nuttier moments, like the dolphin that has psychic energy that Johnny can tap into....

...Seriously, did Jack Gattanella from Lines of Glory write that?

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