Millennial Malaise 09: Johnny Mnemonic

In Which Keanu Needs to Get Online!

Why is Johnny Mnemonic primarily set in Newark, New Jersey? Yes America’s 70th largest city is the hub of all cyber shenanigans in the far off future of 2021. Newark (or the Free City of Newark as the text on screen boldly proclaims) is the center of all intrigue in the entire world. A place of confluence for big pharma, the yakuza, low tech Luddites (helpfully called Lo-Teks), and evil computer enhanced preachers. Throw in a cybernetic dolphin and a ridiculous rave club and all your bases are covered for this slathering piece of cyberjunk. But this parade of absurdities never answer my initial question of why Newark. Instead they just add to the confusion. For all intents and purposes there is no actual reason for the film to take place where it does, and the fact that the setting plays no factor into the themes of the film shows how deep the flaws of the project run.

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The answer is that Johnny Mnemonic has no coherent sense of self or purpose. It’s setting could literally be anywhere and it would have no impact on the story, characters, or ideas being presented. Those said story, characters, and ideas are also such a hodgepodge of cyberpunk cliché that they feel rote and disengaged in year when Hackers came out. In Mnemonic we get an uninspired skim through the greatest hits of techno thriller convention: VR, CG Internet, cybernetic enhancements, guerilla hackers, and a generally disengaged protagonist who only wants money at the beginning and then something more by the end. What’s shocking is that the grandfather of the cyberpunk genre, William Gibson, inked all these hoary tropes on display.

Or maybe that’s why Johnny Mnemonic feels hopelessly out of date even for the year it was made. The story and style here invoke a world where the cyberpunk genre never moved beyond it’s initial Gibson roots and early big screen successes like Blade Runner and Akira. It’s still an isolated man trudging through hyper lit and garbage strewn streets while combating enemies against a backdrop of mild orientalism and fear of the globalized world. If Blade Runner provided the visual template and thematic framework for modern cyberpunk, than Johnny Mnemonic simply reheated it all as decade old leftovers.

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So maybe we can find meaning in the film’s meandering story (spoilers: we can’t). Johnny  (Keanu Reeves) is a mnemonic currier: a smuggler who uploads data into his brain to secretly transport it from location to location without being on a computer network. During a trip to Beijing he overloads his brain implants with a whopping 360 gigabytes of data and is put on a hit list by the yakuza because of the info in his head. Back in Newark (Free City Of,) he teams up with tough girl Jane (Dina Meyer), a group of guerilla fighters led by J-Bone (Ice-T), and a radical street doctor named Spider (Henry Rollins). Together they thwart the Newark yakuza (run here by Takeshi Kitano) and release the data from Johnny’s head (with the help of previously mentioned cybernetic dolphin) to reveal the cure for a tech based illness called NAS.

While the prattling off of plot points from the film might make it out to be a joyous clusterfuck, it’s infinitely more boring than the bad movie watcher would hope. Director Robert Longo has no sense of style or intention in his cinematic language, instead repeatedly falling on “cool” tricks to liven up the proceedings. At multiple points in the film people have their limbs sliced off with laser piano wire, and it’s so indifferently directed that it’s hard to even get excited about the rampant dismemberment in a trashy action thriller.

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This blasé attitude runs through every level of the production. The story lurches from incoherent point to point, providing whatever background details needed in wooden, expository dialog. The action is shot like a Hong Kong bullet ballet on Ambien, and the rather intricate set design and costuming are so discordant and overblown that not one second of the thing feels like it’s part of a larger world instead of a point on a pitch list.

The film tries to get around this by stabbing at relevance and cool. Reeves does strap on VR goggles and maneuver through cyberspace. The soundtrack is populated with trip-hop, electronica, and rap rock. And the casting of people like Rollins and Ice-T feels like a cynical calculation to get cool kids in seats (pulling from both rap and rock in this situation). Rollins gets to rail against technology, blaming the electrons and information overload for the mysterious NAS disease, and Ice-T gets to spout “hip” lingo while leading a resistance against corporate interests (funny considering his future acting career).

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So why dig into Mnemonic at all? It’s because it clarifies something about Reeves as a leading man, why he is so integral as a symbol of the 90s, and how he could be the only person who could really star in The Matrix a few years down the road. Reeves as an action star serves as the lithe, down to earth counterpoint to the previous decade’s hyper masculine archetypes. If the 90s was defined by an embrace of the alternative, than Reeves is to Stallone what Cobain was to Axl Rose. A man who seemed both more plugged in and above the cultural moment, a person who could slip into a variety of different roles while still maintain what made him unique. Over the years it has been easy to criticize Reeves as a one-note performer, a man of stiff line readings and gung ho physicality, but I think that sells his talents a bit short.

Reeves is a person who emphatically puts his body whole heartedly into the work in front of him. He’s always willing to put the muscle into his performance to make his character feel like he’s inhabiting a world and not just standing on a set. And while this ability might fall short in certain settings (looking at you Dracula) it pays off magnificently when you put him in a complex sci-fi setting. That isn’t to say his work in Johnny Mnemonic is good. In fact the material he is given to play is so bad no actor could conceivably save it, but when fidgeting with the sci-fi world around him Reeves is able to to imbue his character with believable and tangible acting touches.

These mostly come in the form of Reeves acting against some bizarre piece of tech. For example when he has the info downloaded into his brain towards the start of the film he girds his teeth and grimaces like the whole world is crushing his head. It’s a funny image, but one showing the extent to which Reeves would go to make this situation real and corporeal to the viewer. The other example is when he works the VR controlled Internet. The sequence itself is a piece of retrograde futurism, but the precision Reeves’ movement with his VR gloves can almost sell it. His ridiculous pantomime is elevated by his ability to try and make this ephemeral bit of story a physical reality. Again it’s arguable the extent he succeeds here, but his work demonstrates an understanding of how to sell the high concept premises around him.

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Reeves’ physicality also makes him a perfect cyberpunk lead. His appearance is much more androgynous than your normal action lead. Neither the bulky frame of a Schwarzenegger nor the schlubby everyman quality of someone like late 80s/early 90s Willis. Instead, he occupies a liminal space between machismo and emotionality. This blurring of more traditional gender lines makes sense in the realm of cyberpunk where identity and personhood are much more fluid.

I highly doubt that the performance Reeves gives in Mnemonic is the primary reason he eventually got the job in The Matrix, but it did prove that his type of action hero would be perfect in a sci-fi setting that wasn’t a parade of nonsense like Johnny Mnemonic. As asinine and pointless as the world of the film is, there’s a spark of something seeing Reeves done up in a suit fiddling about with cyber whatsits and spouting technobabble. A promise buried deep that there’s something to this idea of Reeves traversing the physical and the digital and becoming a new kind of cyberpunk hero.

Odds and Ends

  • Writing this piece has really taught me how to spell mnemonic.
  • Out of all the cybertrash covered in this series, Johnny Mnemonic is by far and away the worst. I would suggest watching Hackers above this. Only recommended with fellow bad movie viewing friends.
  • The suit that Reeves wears sometimes looks like David Byrne’s big suit.
  • Just to show the weird confluence of tech that filled these sci-fi actioners at the time: at one point in the film Johnny has to use the VR Internet to retrieve a fax.
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As always follow me on twitter as I grouse about the relevance of dolphin based tech and check out this list of possible film selections.

Next week Matrix Month continues. As we track the films that paved the way for the influential ’99 action flick we arrive at our first animated feature with 1995’s Ghost in the Shell