May 8, 2019
Johnny Mnemonic (1995), a recap (part 1 of 3)
You would be hard-pressed to find a celebrity more beloved than Keanu Reeves, and it’s not hard to figure out why, as he avoids controversy and doesn’t get involved in tawdry headline-grabbing feuds or affairs. He donates a lot of his money, is self-depreciating almost to a fault, and doesn’t seem to have any vices. Has anyone ever seen the video of him giving up a seat to someone on the subway when he didn’t realize he was being recorded? Remember the Sad Keanu meme? The guy seemed genuinely alone, evoking sympathy, yet at the same time the meme produced its fair share of chuckles. I’d almost think that his impossible existence means he’s some programmed construct and proof we’re living in the Matrix.
Keanu is 56 years old and he’s showing zero signs of slowing down, between his John Wick franchise, and the fact that he’s coming out with another one at about the same time as another Matrix movie, and how his crowdfunded comic Brzrkr has dropped, selling over six hundred thousand copies and apparently is going to be made into a Netflix movie. And he’s also been involved in the game Cyberpunk 2077 as the character Johnny Silverhand.
At this point, Keanu is so untouchable that even with all the criticisms 2077 has incurred due to game glitches, Mr. Reeves’ popularity hasn’t been tarnished. And look at him in that pic above; he looks so grizzled and badass. But while this might be the Keanu some of you youngsters know, I recall him playing a different Johnny from a time when his career was, well, hit or miss. A time when his futuristic character might have had better fashion sense, but was considerably less… cool…
I am, of course, talking about Johnny Mnemonic, a movie based on the short story written by cyberpunk demigod William Gibson. I won’t lie, I haven’t seen the movie since it dropped in 1995. Is it as terminally mediocre as I remember? Only one way to find out. It’s time to jack in and watch…
We start off with a data scroll, and a caption saying this takes place in… the year 2021? You mean… more or less now? Swear to gawd, I forgot that bit. And in this movie, the world is threatened by a plague? Thirty seconds into the film and it’s already proving to be pretty damn accurate. The plague in question is “Nerve Attenuation Syndrome”, and its cause and cure are unknown. The world is run by mega-corporations with powers far beyond any government, which seems a little hard to believe could come true. By the way, did you know Google is owned by a corporation called Alphabet, which among its subsidiaries includes one that wants to extend human life, and another that’s working on autonomous driving, and still another working on delivery of products via drone, and still another mastering artificial intelligence? I hadn’t realized I was living in a cyberpunk dystopia until just now. If this article gets published, it’ll only be because it amuses the AI assigned to watch me.
The mega-corporations use the Yakuza as muscle to fight the rebellious LoTeks, which sounds like a Star Trek alien race of the week. The Italian mob was so ’70s and the Colombians were hot stuff briefly in the ’80s. But the ’90s? It was all about the Yakuza, warring for attention with the Jamaicans. And they’re using terms like “black ice” and “wet wired brain implants”, and all of a sudden it’s the 1980s again and I’m reading cyberpunk classics penned by Gibson, Walter John Williams, Bruce Sterling, and George Alec Effinger. I’m playing the Cyberpunk and Shadowrun RPGs with my friends. I have a full head of hair and the waistline of a Playboy model. Um, where was I? Oh, right.
Some use special “mnemonic couriers”, who carry data in their heads. As useful as all this information is, was it really necessary? Honestly, couldn’t we have been told all of this over the course of the film? It’s reminiscent of the text scroll from the oft-maligned theatrical cut of Blade Runner, where the suits thought audiences had to be spoonfed everything. So after a minute long infodump, we get the name of the movie and then…
Yes! It does take place in 2021. Only, if this is the 2021 internet, where’s the porn? Though maybe if you click on that Kanji symbol there it unlocks some hentai. Seriously, if you were surfing the net with your brain you’d probably have to avoid a ton of naughty bits flying in your face. Speaking of flying, we zoom through the ‘net to Keanu Reeves’ eyeball as he receives a wakeup notice from the “New Darwin Inn”. An attractive woman comes out of the bathroom, and as Johnny channel surfs instead of watching her slip on stockings, we get a news report about “NAS”. The woman asks Johnny where “home” is, and Keanu attempts to act as he ponders that. He says, “Would you believe I don’t know?” With that glassy eyed expression? Hell, yes.
Ah, Johnny has memory problems, which makes the title “Johnny Mnemonic” ironic, since the word means “a device such as a pattern of letters, ideas, or associations that assists in remembering something”. I don’t know if that’s deliberately or just accidentally clever. As the woman—now sadly dressed—leaves, Johnny uses the TV remote to place a phone call to “Ralfi”.
Does everyone in the
present future have names like fifth graders? Johnny asks “Ralfi” about a date and the guy talks, and damn, it’s generic European character actor Udo Kier, the guy who turned Frost into a vampire in Blade. I can still hear him say, “You bore me, Frost. You bore me.” Johnny wants an operation to get the thing in his head out, which will allow him to get his memories back, although I don’t see how that’s possible. But Ralfi says the price of the operation has gone up and it’s going to take a high-paying gig to cover it. He asks Johnny if he got the “upgrade”, and you can tell Keanu’s lying when he says, “Yeah.” So now he’s off to Beijing for “one last job”.
Cut to Beijing, where riots are going on. Swap out Beijing for Hong Kong and this movie would have been scarily prescient. Johnny makes his way to a high-end hotel, where a hacker sounding a lot like Ice-T says to “Snatch back your brain, zombie, and hold it!” That could easily be a lyric in a Marilyn Manson song. Johnny heads up in the elevator, and along the way he pulls a device out of his pocket and plugs it into the back of his skull.
It turns out it’s a “doubler” that expands his memory to 160 GB. And… actually, based on the palm-sized device and what must be a small amount of physical space in Johnny’s skull, 80 and 160 gigs are pretty believable based on today’s technology. So yeah, I’d say the writers were pretty spot on. Johnny gets to a hotel room full of Asian dudes, most of them heavily armed. After a lame joke about being the pizza delivery boy, Johnny sets up a motion detector on the door. Two of the dudes, who are obviously nerds…
…tell Johnny the data he’s delivering is 320 gigs. Johnny lies and says no sweat, and that he can handle it. For the benefit of the audience, the nerds explain that if Johnny exceeds his storage capacity, it’ll fry his brain and probably render the data irretrievably corrupted. Though, electronic data doesn’t work like that; either it fits, or it doesn’t.
Meanwhile downstairs, a lot of suspicious dudes get into an elevator and they’re dressed exactly like our characters in Cyberpunk and Shadowrun were, all decked out in black trenchcoats and body armor. I feel silly now that I think back on how upset I was when the GM said we looked conspicuous. Upstairs, Johnny accepts a ticket to Newark and sits down to prep for the download, pulling out various and sundry gadgets as the nerds watch, all fascinated. Johnny tells one of them to copy three images of the TV screen, which will be the password to download the data on the other side, and which he won’t know. His buddy has to fax the images to Newark, and I can remember thinking no way people would still be faxing stuff in 2021. Silly me. Johnny plugs in, puts in a mouth guard, and says “Hit me!”
The upload begins and we get a data computer cyberscape that reminds me of the movie Hackers… which also came out in ’95. Man, them Hollywood types were all crazy about those com-pu-tor things back then. After the download, Johnny staggers to the bathroom. Nerd #1 faxes the three images in what is admittedly a pretty cool-looking fax machine, while Nerd #2 literally fries the disk containing the data so only Johnny has the info.
In the bathroom, Johnny’s nose starts bleeding as cyber-images flash through his mind. Fortunately, Johnny has a cure for this: yoga! Or… some sort of martial arts ritual thing. Whatever it is, it reminds me of the stuff Khan was doing in the Star Trek episode “Space Seed” when he woke up. Johnny’s all cool now and he leaves the bathroom, but the motion sensor goes off. And does Johnny warn the nerds? Of course not! He hides in the bathroom. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. Seriously, if Johnny had warned the others, they might’ve had a fighting chance against what happens next.
An assassin pulls what looks like a laser garrote from his thumb and cuts out the knobs and locks, and gunmen from the elevator burst in.
One guy goes to check the bathroom and Johnny takes him out, while the other gunmen finish off almost everyone else. Our “hero” notes the fax isn’t done, which is a problem for him. He bursts out of the bathroom and grabs the images, while taking out another guy. But the third whips out his trick thumb whip…
…which yeah, is pretty kewl. The whip slices through everything it touches, including the images. Johnny manages an escape by using one of the gunmen as a human shield and flees. Nerd #2 grabs the other images and burns them, but thumb-whip guy literally slices off the guy’s fingers with a flick of his wrist. He then compels the nerd to tell him where Johnny’s going. Meanwhile, Johnny dons a quick disguise and slips out of the hotel.
A simple wig, hat, and glasses, as well as buttoning up his coat and striding slowly out of the hotel? No lie, this not really implausible. None of the guys got a good look at him, after all.
Cut to the “free” city of Newark, because no one would pay a cent for it. We see slums and homeless and fires in steel barrels. So nothing new, then. Johnny lands and his implant is detected by customs, but they register it as a “dyslexia prosthesis implant”. They also detect the seepage and say he’s got 24 hours before Bad Things happen. Meanwhile at the Newark office of Pharmakom (you can tell they’re evil because of the “k”), Thumb Whip Guy reports to the local boss, who we discover recently lost his son. There’s bad blood between the two, and Thumb Whip Guy has to give up the image that wasn’t burned. His orders from high up are to bring them Johnny’s head, literally, because the nerds destroyed the only other copy of the data.
Cut to Johnny and he’s made a call from the back of the cab to Ralfi, who says no matter how he feels about it, he’s got to come in so their employers can extract the data. Hmm, I wonder how they’ll do that without all the images. Cut to Ralfi’s club, which looks like a cheaper, sleazier version of Taffey Lewis’ place from Blade Runner, and we see a man and woman working their way through the crowd. And ohmygawd, the man, Spider, is Henry Rollins, the scariest man in rock!
Don’t let the nerdish demeanor fool you; he will tear your mind out and burn your soul! The woman (played by Dina Meyer) is not listening to his warnings about her medical condition, and instead she heads down to talk to Ralfi. She makes short work of his bodyguards, but he’s not impressed; he tells her to hold out her hand.
It stays steady, but not for long; she’s got the shakes due to Spider’s cheap upgrades. Ralfi sends her on her way. Meanwhile, Johnny’s cab (not to be confused with Johnny Cab) gets left off in a burned out area of Newark… which could be almost anywhere, I guess. Johnny looks around, unaware he’s being observed.
Hey, Ice-T really is in this movie. Johnny heads into a dilapidated building where a man calls out his name. He tells Johnny he’s here to help, and our protagonist follows him into another room, but not before placing a device on the outer door frame. Inside, someone familiar is waiting for him.
It’s the bald guy from the hotel massacre! Johnny knocks down the guy who lured him here, but “Baldy” still gets the drop on Johnny. But oh-ho! The device outside was a bomb triggered by Johnny’s watch. Baldy takes the brunt of the blast and Johnny’s gone like the wind. The bald guy stalks Johnny, while Ice-T’s friend makes a sound and gets accidentally shot for his trouble, much to Ice-T’s anger. At least I think he’s angry; Ice-T always has that look on his face. Baldy gets the drop on Ice-T, who was checking on his friend. This allows Johnny to get the drop on Baldy, knocking him out. Ice-T then takes down Baldy’s bodyguard with a well-thrown blade. As Johnny arms himself with Baldy’s gun, Ice-T says they’re even, and he introduces himself as “J-Bone”, who runs “Heaven”, AKA the LoTek empire.
And then… he’s gone! Later at Ralfi’s, Johnny shows up with a gun in his hand and blood in his eyes as he confronts the fixer in his private bathroom. Ralfi explains that there was a “screw-up” and tries to weasel his way out of the situation, while Johnny seems ready to put a very big hole in the club owner’s forehead. But then Ralfi’s bodyguard shows up, knocking Johnny out. Our protagonist lays unconscious and helpless, friendless and soon quite possibly, headless.
Next time: Does Johnny keep his head? Stop by and find out.