William Gibson novels are famously hard to adapt to the big screen. There’s the long-gestating version of Neuromancer we have yet to see; Michael Mann’s take on Count Zero that never manifested itself; Mona Lisa Overdrive, which has been acquired but as yet remains un-adapted; and Pattern Recognition, which at one point had Dead Poets Society’s Peter Weir in the director’s chair. And that’s one of the reasons why Robert Longo’s Johnny Mnemonic is such an oddity: not only is it one of the few Gibson stories to successfully make it to film, but it’s one of the most bonkers, silly, downright enjoyable genre movies of the 1990s.
The film, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year (it hit UK cinemas in 1996, several months after the US), follows Keanu Reeves’ Johnny, a data courier who carries files internally thanks to an implant in his brain. However, after accidentally taking on too much data that risks his own life and being chased across the world by the Yakuza, Johnny finds himself in a race against time to get the data out of his head and into the hands of its recipient before it’s too late.
Thankfully, the film as a whole is about as ridiculous as it sounds – and it’s all the better for it. Too many genre movies fall into the trap of taking themselves extremely seriously, and it’s always to the detriment of the final product. Luckily for us, Johnny Mnemonic is not one of those movies. Yes, it’s complete nonsense, and no, it shouldn’t work – but if you switch off and enjoy the ride, there’s plenty of fun to be had.
It’s a good job the film is so fun, because, honestly, a good deal of it is less than impressive. The dialogue, characters, and performances in particular are pretty poor. The pre-Matrix Reeves hasn’t found his rhythm in serious roles just yet, but is still a joy to watch. Whether he’s overacting or underplaying, he’s undeniably hilarious – though one does have to question why Johnny takes on the 320GB data packet when he knows his storage is only 160GB, and anything over that runs the risk of killing him. But hey, we don’t come to films like this for logic, do we?
Opposite him is Dina Meyer as Jane, a cybernetically-enhanced bodyguard who sticks by Johnny at the promise of a $50k paycheck at the end of it. Neither character is particularly deep or interesting, but the pair’s chemistry is fun enough to keep us engaged, and thankfully comes without a shoehorned-in romantic subplot. There’s also Dolph Lundgren, whose so-called ‘Street Preacher’ is massively underused, as he’s one of the film’s best components. Whether Lundgren is good or bad in the role is irrelevant, because he’s absolutely hilarious in it. The Street Preacher is basically a Terminator with more charisma – and as a result, all Dolph has to do is punch some people and shout lines like “Jesus is here!” before stabbing someone in the face. Good stuff.
The film’s world-building is particularly interesting: some of it works, and some of it doesn’t. Its visions of the Internet in 2021 are, frankly, adorable, with Reeves at one point donning gloves and a headset to find some information – given the tech of the time, these sequences are fairly well-realised, but so off the mark it’s almost cute. The NAS virus is the only real component that lets it down: it’s mentioned briefly in the opening crawl but barely comes up again until the ending, where we realise it’s actually really important. Now, we’re not saying that more information about a world-crippling virus is exactly what we want in 2021 – but it certainly wouldn’t have done Johnny Mnemonic any harm.
As a whole piece, the movie just clicks. It’s sprawling and silly and has no right to work at all, but it somehow just does. It’s not a masterpiece by any means, but it was definitely misunderstood at the time. As genre movies go it’s heaps of fun, and more than worth your time – just don’t try to overthink it.
Release Date: May 10th (Digital)