Johnny Mnemonic

He wants room service
★★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
1995
Director: 
Robert Longo
Starring: 
Keanu Reeves, Dina Meyer, Ice-T, Takeshi Kitano, Henry Rollins
The Setup: 
Guy has huge upload in head he needs to unload or die.
Discussion: 

Ahhh yes, Johnny Mnemonic. This came right after Speed. and I recall at the time it was sold as another amazing Keanu action epic, since you loved the last one. It is also one of the few adaptations of the work of William Gibson, well-regarded sci-fi "cyberpunk" writer who originally coined the term "cyberspace" and is known as a visionary of the modern information age. And the screenplay is written by the man himself! It is the one and only film directed by Robert Longo, best known as a painter. And it is regarded as just a terrible, terrible movie [the Japanese version is said to be better]. Longo explains that he and Gibson had the idea to make it into a $1.5M art film, but Columbia, who owned the rights, saw it as a tentpole and threw $30M at it, and apparently someone then held a gun to Longo and Wilson's head and forced them to make a shitty movie. I guess? I mean, time to walk away, guys. But maybe they thought this time it would be different. Anyway, we're left with this, which is not without entertainment value and is mercifully short.

We open with a super-confusing opening crawl that basically says people are suffering from NAS--yes, the rapper--and there are the LoTeks, who are kind of like badass ninja Luddites, and the bad guys employ the Yakuza, whom you will recall are Japanese gangsters, and people smuggle information in the brains of Mnemonics, because then it isn't transmitted and thus can't be picked up. We then go through some poor 1995 CGI representing "Internet 2021," briefly raising hopes that this is going to be one of those hilarious movies trying to envision the future of the internet from the 90s, like the classic Hackers [please, please watch that now. Watch it instead of this] or Disclosure, but only a tiny bit. Anyway, Keanu wakes up with a hooker, who promptly leaves, and that will serve as your glimpse of his life before it is transformed, thank you very much. He calls up Udo Kier as the guy who gets him his jobs, and demands the "full memory recovery" he was apparently promised. Kier tells him he has to do "one last job," and away he goes.

He goes to Shanghai, where we learn that the capacity of his head is 160GB, which may give you a bit of a laugh. He can hold 40,000 songs in his head! The message is 320GB, all text files, obviously, and it is soon uploaded, but not without some exposition that if his brain can't hold that capacity [Keanu lies and says it can] it can corrupt the data and kill him in a few days. Of course, it never does much of anything except cause him a few CGI flashes that apparently hurt. Nothing some Extra Strength Tylenol wouldn't fix. But you can get used to seeing quite a few shots of Keanu gritting his teeth as he is uploaded and downloaded and whatnot, which had me focusing on his dentistry, frankly. The password is three random images from TV. No sooner is he uploaded when the bad guys show up and kill everyone, slicing the password in two and causing Keanu to run for his life. Two things: the information can't be retrieved from Keanu's severed head, and without the password, he's fucked. You know, the more I write about this, the more I think someone could make it into a good movie.

After we note that the Concorde is still flying in this film's 2021, Keanu lands in Newark, where he soon meets Kier, surrounded by two bodyguards [one of whom really seems to be Jamie Foxx in drag and oh God, I SO wanted it to be him], and we note that Henry Rollins is on hand, as is Dina Meyer as Jane. She's as terrible as she always is, and is pissed at Kier for not letting her be one of his bodyguards. The baddies break in, and Jane defends Keanu, and now they're best buds. By the way, I forgot to mention that the lead baddie in the field has a detachable thumb with a laser-whip-garrote in it, and that the lead baddie, stationed behind a desk, is played by the estimable Takeshi Kitano, who you will recognize from films such as Sonatine and Battle Royale. Keanu gets outside and runs into Ice-T [OMG, remember when every movie had Ice-T?] as J-Bone, leader of the Loteks, but soon he and Jane are on the run again. By the way, the character of Jane is actually supposed to be ultra-badass Molly Millions, who went on to feature prominently in Gibson's Neuromancer, the rights to which are owned by Universal, so they had to change her here to plain Jane, who is not really all that badass. This whole switch still has Gibson fans apoplectic.

Keanu wants to access the internet [not in the story, added to the film to bring in this whole new 'internet' craze], and on the way, he informs Jane that he gave up his childhood memories in order to get the storage space to be a mnemonic, and he wants them back. They find an old warehouse with an internet connection, and Keanu puts on a virtual reality headset and a pair of navigational gloves to make his experience very much like that of Minority Report, only, you know, I thought it was kind of cool. The internet still looks like a bad 80s video game where you pass down several corridors and open password by rearranging triangles and shit, but the whole thing was kind of fun. He finds out almost nothing, but is contacted by the lady of the internet, whose role I still don't quite understand, but go with it. The baddies arrive, they escape, and soon Jane collapses--she has NAS!

Now, I lied to you, NAS isn't actually a neurological disease caused by listening to the rapper, it stands for Neurological Attenuation Syndrome, and Henry Rollins [gosh he's cute] as Spider, doctor to the Loteks, explains it's caused by electromagnetic fields from technology that is everywhere, "but we still have all this shit--because we can't live without it!" This little speech of Mr. Rollins' is not his finest acting moment, but he sure is cute in those glasses. And so, like, intense. Still, no reason he needed to do the scene with his shirt on. He is running a little hospital operation out of the remains of Grand Central Station, and after saving Jane, figures out right quick that what Keanu has in his head is a complete collection of every recipe for spinach dip ever created, as well as a comprehensive photographic collection of Cats Who Are Having a Better Day Than You. He also has the cure for NAS, and all in his tiny 320GB capacity! Then the lab is invaded and the comely but thespically-challenged Mr. Rollins bids us a hasty adieu. Then Keanu and Jane head out to this bridge that is the hangout of both the Loteks and Hi-Tek-3. It is there that Keanu delivers a big... well, "monologue" would be kind, where he has had it up to here and never asked for any of this freedom-fighter shit, he used to live the high life, not caring about others, and he wants to go back to all that, culminating in the line "I want room service!" It actually is Keanu's little moment of glory in this film, but sadly, is short-changed because the movie didn't bother to give us any setup information about him, or take any time to build his character before any of this happened, so all the words in his big speech ring hollow. Anyway, soon he is brought up onto the bridge, where he meets the bionic dolphin.

There is actually a bionic dolphin, a concept which probably worked in the book, but is just one more kooky element here. The dolphin is a codebreaker and will be able to unlock the secrets in Keanu's head, but not before every single bad guy in the movie attacks at the same time. All those pesky Yakuza are cleaned out almost instantly--guess they weren't much of a threat after all, then somehow Street Preacher got up on that bridge [he levitates?] and is eventually killed as well. He is apparently powered by all sorts of internal implants which we never got a good explanation of, so he never really emerges as much of a character or a threat. By the way, we have learned that if you are in the Internet, which looks like an early Sega video game, computer viruses are like laser beams being shot at you. Anyway, there is amusement to be had at watching all the reaction shots inserted here as the cure to NAS is uploaded. This, somehow, causes the tower of the company that profits from the virus to start on fire. Anway, Keanu suddenly gets all of his childhood memories back, and it turns out that he was raised in a luxuriously-appointed British manor home!

Well, it sucks, but it is not entirely without amusement. And it's only 90 minutes! You can watch pretty much anything for 90 minutes. It moves swiftly, is lively, has enough sci-fi interest and colorful [if undeveloped] characters and action to keep you in your seat. And it must be said that many of the special effects are truly atrocious, even for 1995. Keanu is, ummm, well-matched to his blank, emotionless character. And, you know, you've got enough new stuff every few minutes for it all to be amusing, if never good.

Thing is, you can easily see how it could have been good [and is ripe for a remake]. This is the kind of science fiction structure that could be called a "tour through the future," where a thin plot serves as a reason to move our heroes around a future world and see its mechanics, meet its characters, soak up its atmosphere, etc. The best example of this might be Blade Runner. Thing is, if the future world is the main feature, you have to take time for all of its elements to get their fair shake and for it all to cohese together into a view of the future that becomes the main content of the film. Here, the primary interest is the plot, and making it to the next action scene, so although there are a lot of good elements, none of them are developed enough to have much impact. They just come on, are seen, and take off. The material is bristling with ideas... the mechanics of a disease caused by technology, the character of Street Preacher, the life and moral code of Mnemonic couriers, the woman in the Internet, the idea of giving up memories for a job, there's a ton of stuff to be explored here, but the movie just throws it all in and barely takes time to explain any of it, let alone let the ideas soak in. But someone could easily take this and make a great movie out of it, which would probably have more resonance to more people now than when this came out.

But, til then, you could do worse than watching this. It will do little more than kill time and probably won't leave you with anything to think about or any good reason for spending your time, but, you know, it won't kill you.

Should you watch it: 

If you want and have time to kill.