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Johnny Mnemonic

Entry updated 24 January 2017. Tagged: Film.

Film (1995). Limited Partnership. An Alliance Communications production. Directed by Robert Longo. Written by William Gibson, based on his story "Johnny Mnemonic" (May 1981 Omni). Cast includes Ice-T, Takeshi Kitano, Dina Meyer and Keanu Reeves. 96 minutes. Colour.

"Johnny Mnemonic" (May 1981 Omni), one of William Gibson's earliest stories, is about a future in which information is carried in the brains of "mnemonic" couriers. One such courier, Johnny (Reeves), is targeted by a Japanese criminal syndicate – the Yakuza – when he unwittingly takes on data that they want to retrieve, driving him to seek refuge with the Lo Teks: a group of twenty-first-century Robin Hoods living above the urban sprawl. Johnny Mnemonic, the movie, was also written by Gibson; but he pads out the plot with a series of further, and not very relevant, Cyberpunk tropes such as AIs and information plagues. As the film lacks sufficient space to go into detail about these elements, they seem clumsy, and needlessly complicate the story.

Longo, the director, is an American artist, quite well known for his painting, drawing and sculpture, with an avant-garde reputation. In filming he had done little beyond some music videos, but was presumably chosen to bring a strongly visual style to Johnny Mnemonic. However there is not much of a personal vision in the film; which mixes the dystopian slums of Batman (1989) (see Batman Films) or Blade Runner (1982) with, for example, a host of colourful thugs and rogues with hair and makeup straight from Mad Max 2 (1981). Indeed, many of the more evocative images from the original story, such as the Lo Teks' bestial genetic modifications and Johnny's Cyborg protector (Molly Millions, later to reappear in a major role in Gibson's Neuromancer [1984]), are dropped completely in the movie. However, a short sequence where Johnny enters cyberspace is stylish and entertaining, and shows what might have been.

Nor does directing actors seem to be Longo's forte. Most performances are poor. Physically, Keanu Reeves is perfect casting for Johnny, described as Gibson as "your basic sharp-faced Caucasoid with a ruff of stiff, dark hair", but his stilted delivery is lamentable.

These severe flaws are a pity, because in some ways Johnny Mnemonic is very strong science fiction. Its central conceit is interesting, and Gibson's script, unlike much Hollywood sf product, suggests a vibrant life outside the confines of the plot, especially in the casual use of slang that firmly positions the period as culturally different from our own.

Inevitably, given its lead actor and style, Johnny Mnemonic is now remembered almost as a prelude to that vastly more successful, if slightly more mainstream, film four years later: The Matrix (1999). [JN]


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