This first feature length adaptation of cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson’s work (there had been an earlier short, Tomorrow Calling (1993) based on his 1981 short story The Gernsback Continuum, first published in Terry Carr’s anthology Universe 11) was comprehensively trashed by the critical establishment on its release, and not without justification. The main charges levelled against painter and sculptor Robert Longo’s debut feature film were those of incomprehensibility, a notable lack of feeling for the source material and the truly terrible performance of Keanu Reeves in the central role. In truth it’s not that hard to follow and a degree of expansion was necessary to bring Gibson’s short story up to feature length, a task the author took upon himself. The plot itself is really rather simple – it’s the details,the minutiae that is so info-rich. Indeed this was used as a criticism against Gibson’s written work too, that the dazzling surface detail often sought to obscure a rather mundane plot. Johnny Mnemonic doesn’t cheat its audience – all the information you need to unravel this fully imagined future milieu is all there, it just needs careful attention to decode it all. The dialogue – with its casual and often unexplained references to all manner of hi-tech paraphenalia – may have left most wondering if they were watching a foreign language film that had lost its subtitles, but the film is still easy enough to decipher and enjoy without it.
In the year 2021, Johnny (Reeves) acts as a “data courier”, transporting valuable data in a storage device implanted in his head. Though it earns him a good living, Johnny’s chosen profession comes at a cost – the implant has blocked his childhood memories. One last job should pay for the procedure to have the implant removed and those memories restored but it all goes spectacularly wrong when the uploaded data proves too large for the storage device and Johnny is forced on the run by the Yakuza and global pharmacological company Pharmakom who want the mysterious data for themselves. Along the way he meets a variety of oddball characters including a cybernetically-enhanced bodyguard (Dina Mayer), the Lo-Teks and their leader J-Bone (Ice-T) and Jones, a cyborg dolphin formerly used by the Navy as a decryption tool.
Despite the more outre elements, it’s not the hardest of narratives to follow and it’s certainly one packed with incident and enough twists and turns to keep almost anyone happily engaged. What stops Johnny Mnemonic from attaining the rarefied cult status of something like Blade Runner (1982), the look and feel of which Longo and his team are inevitably a bit too quick to emulate, is the fatal central non-performance from Reeves. Still hot from the success of Jan De Bont’s Speed (1994) but still a few years from The Matrix (1999), Reeves looked set to shape up nicely as an action hero to rival Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone et al. Sadly, while we were able to overlook his thesping inadequacies in De Bont’s breakneck thriller, in which all he was required to do was look good in a new haircut and pose manfully on a runaway bus, Johnny Mnemonic required actual acting and this seems to have utterly defeated him. Gibson’s hard-boiled, noir-inflected dialogue sounds painful when issuing forth from Reeves. One can only wonder if it would been any better if the original choice for the role, Val Kilmer, hadn’t passed on the role.
The rest of the cast seems to be suffering too, though the choice of actors seems bizarre in retrospect – Dolph Lundgren is reduced to an extended cameo as the insane Street Preacher, as is Udo Keir as Johnny’s handler Ralfi, while Henry Rollins is suprisingly watchable in his role as a street surgeon. Dina Meyer is good too – the acting department’s sole saving grace – as the bodyguard that Johnny acquires on his travels (rechristened Jane from the original story’s Molly – the character resurfaced in Gibson’s debut novel Neuromancer (1984), the film rights to which were held elsewhere), though as most of her scenes involve her reacting to the human plank that is Reeves, she had little real competition. Ice-T meanwhile, continues to play himself, making no attempt to be anything other than his real life persona.
Longo came in for much of the critical flack, much of it unwarranted. The former multimedia artist certainly isn’t up to Ridley Scott’s standards (imagine Gibson teaming up with the Blade Runner director – now that would be a movie…) but Longo still does a creditable job in translating Gibson’s schizophrenic vision of a future that is simultaneously gleaming and privileged and grimy and disadvantaged to the big screen. His best moments, however, are those set in cyberspace, particularly in the jaw dropping sequence where Johnny dons his virtual reality rig and accesses the internet to make the most visually stunning long-distance phone call in movie history. Fans of William Gibson’s innovative prose were bound to be disappointed by this adaptation, if only because there was no way that Reeves was ever going to match up to the story’s Johnny.Yet ironically, they were the only ones that were going to be comfortable with Gibson’s jargon-rich, information dense dialogue. Gibson would recycle some of the newly minted material in his Johnny Mnemonic screenplay in future work, most notably the makeshift community that grows organically on an abandoned bridge, a setting that feature prominently in his later “Bridge trilogy” – the novels Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996) and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999).
Overall, Johnny Mnemonic is a disappointment simply because it is so under-achieving – the production design is superb and Longo’s direction is adequate while never really being in any way distinctive. But the script is a surprising let down for die hard Gibson fans who expected a little bit more from the author, but the real killer of course is the entirely dreadful Reeves – who was nominated for a Golden Raspberry award for Worst Actor but lost out to Paul Shore for Jury Duty (1995) – whose deathly performance sinks the project without a hope of salvage. A longer cut of the film was released in Japan before being released anywhere else and is a marginal improvement but not enough to make any real difference.