Keanu Reeves’ messiest sci-fi movie is worth another watch
Before Keanu Reeves could become Neo, he had to be Johnny.
It’s the second decade of the 21st century. Everything is run by corporations, and there’s a mass plague infecting people worldwide. No, this is not a recent documentary, it’s actually the plot of the 1995 cyberpunk film starring none other than Keanu Reeves.
In the world of Johnny Mnemonic, the year is 2021, and the world is afflicted by a mass virus. The only treatments available come from an enormous pharmaceutical corporation in Japan. The virus is called "nerve attenuation syndrome” (or NAS) and is said to be caused by the Internet, and people get infected due to “information overload.”
Keanu Reeves plays Johnny, a “mnemonic courier” who transports information for corporations via an implant in his brain. We don’t know much about Johnny, not even a last name (Johnny himself doesn’t even know it after purging his memories to make room for data).
Johnny’s goal is to quit the business, have surgery to remove the brain implant and get his memories back. He just needs to complete one more high-paying order, and he’ll have the money to do it. The problem is, this order’s data exceeds the current storage capacity in Johnny’s brain. But the money is too good to pass up.
The solution? Johnny overloads his brain and then has to rush-deliver the data before his brain explodes. But expediency is not in the cards because other people want the information in Johnny’s head: the cure for NAS.
While trying to make this delivery, Johnny is pursued by the pharmaceutical company’s henchmen, the Japanese mafia (the Yakuza), and Dolph Lundgren. All are desperately trying to get to the intel in Johnny’s brain. And Johnny is literally fighting to keep his head on his shoulders.
This is actually the second movie I’ve seen that features both the Japanese mafia and Dolph Lundgren in the same film. There was significant panic in the ‘80s and ‘90s due to Japan being so far ahead of the U.S. in technological advancements, which is probably why the Yakuza would pop up as movie antagonists during this time. I don’t know about Dolph Lundgren, except that people loved seeing him shirtless around these two decades.
Less so here. Lundgren is heavily clothed in this movie as a cybernetically-enhanced religious zealot/assassin known as The Street Preacher.
Oh wait, I take it back. The studio had to have at least one Lundgren scene like this. (Semi-nudity aside, Lundgren gives a very enthusiastic performance.)
Keanu Reeves is immensely popular right now, but in the ‘90s, there was a time when people thought he was a bad actor. After seeing him in this movie, I can see why. His attempts at expressing emotions are awkward at best. Admittedly, his monologue about wanting room service and a $10,000 hooker is pretty funny, but it’s comical because of the awkward delivery.
Reeves is not a bad actor. He’s played some strong roles where he does a great job. However, Reeves is at his best when he’s playing very straightforward characters like Neo, John Wick, or Ted “Theodore” Logan. Subtlety is not his strong suit.
Johnny’s rise to becoming his world’s hero isn’t particularly interesting, either. Cyberpunk protagonists are generally normal people in their dystopian worlds who are forced into situations beyond their control. They’re usually powerless when starting out but become stronger over the course of the film.
Johnny Mnemonic definitely accomplishes this, but it doesn’t happen in a compelling way. The reason is simple: there are too many subplots:
- There’s the virus.
- There’s Johnny’s quest to get rid of his implant along with the current ticking time bomb in his head.
- There are a bunch of cybernetically-enhanced people running around this world, who include Jane, Johnny’s wannabe bodyguard who can’t get hired by anyone else due to her NAS infection.
- Then, you have the evil pharmaceutical company whose CEO is grieving his dead daughter.
- There’s a mysterious A.I. floating around.
- And there’s an anti-establishment movement group and their underground operations.
This movie is only 96 minutes long. That’s not a lot of time to develop all these characters and give enough focus to various subplots. Not to mention, it takes away the sense of urgency when the movie keeps cutting to all these different subplots. It gets exhausting.
Johnny Mnemonic was filmed before The Matrix, and it’s obvious that lessons were learned from this movie. The Matrix has a much more streamlined plot. It also has more time to devote to the character and world development.
The Wachowskis created the perfect role to showcase Keanu Reeves’s talent. Neo is as simple and unsubtle as they come.
Johnny Mnemonic may not be the most engaging movie out there, but if you’re really interested in seeing a mid-’90s cyberpunk, you might enjoy checking it out. And on the plus side, you will get to see Ice-T in one of his earlier acting roles. And he looks amazing.
Johnny Mnemonic is streaming on Netflix until October 31.