Johnny Mnemonic

(Robert Longo, USA/Canada, 1995)


It happens sooner or (more usually) later to all the subcultural crazes: punk music, Generation-X literature, and now 1980s-style cyberpunk. They all finally make their way to the big screen, but in a form so pale and compromised that one can hardly recall what supposedly (or actually) made them exciting in the first place.


Johnny Mnemonic is adapted by cyber-guru William Gibson from his short story started in 1977 and first published in 1981, landing in his 1986 collection Burning Chrome that also included the 1984 “New Rose Hotel”. On the page, “Johnny Mnemonic” bears all the familiar ingredients of the cyberpunk mode: a decaying future society; daily warfare between sinister state operatives and grungy “info-terrorists”; ubiquitous technology, both high and (preferably) hacked. (The intriguing 1993 TV series Wild Palms written by Bruce Wagner also presents the Gibsonian panoply – complete with a cameo from Gibson himself.)


It may not exactly be Gibson’s fault, but much of this reportedly radical posturing already seemed rather laughable by the close of 1995 – despite the ‘90s “rise of the Internet” that was assumed to have made cyberpunk so piercingly relevant at last. Three years later, Abel Ferrara’s adaptation of New Rose Hotel did a much better job of elevating the paraphernalia of Gibson’s universe to knotty, captivating, ambiguous cinema.


Johnny Mnemonic, on the other hand, is a pretty poor movie. Tales of money problems – too much of it, for a change – and post-production fiddling abound; an alternative cut (which I haven’t seen) was released in Japan. But still … Keanu Reeves is truly awful in the title role. Raging around, bellowing his He-Man lines, he’s an embarrassment. And I say that as a lifelong fan!


Ritzy New York artist Robert Longo – plugging into a mainly underwhelming mid ‘90s American trend of “artists’ movies” (see Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer [1997] and Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat [1996], among others) – shows even less sure grasp of his craft behind the camera than Keanu does in front of it. The many action scenes are poorly staged, and the film has a dull, inert rhythm (even after having been spiced up by Sony Pictures).


Only a string of colourful cameos – including Udo Kier, Henry Rollins and Takeshi Kitano – grants this project the slightest whiff of subcultural authenticity.

© Adrian Martin December 1995 / November 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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