On May 26th, 1995, music video director and artist Robert Longo made his directorial debut with Johnny Mnemonic, an adaptation of William Gibson’s futuristic short story of the same name (Gibson also penned the screenplay) that starred Keanu Reeves in the titular role as a “mnemonic courier” who finds himself in the middle of a corporate conspiracy with implications for all of mankind.
Johnny Mnemonic celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, and while it may not necessarily be a film many sci-fi fans celebrate, it’s always held a special place in my heart, undoubtedly being one of the coolest films I saw that year and one that also revitalized the cyberpunk film movement (yes, even before The Matrix came along and did it a bit more effectively).
For the uninitiated, Johnny Mnemonic transports us to the year 2021; in the opening text crawl, we learn that corporations have taken over the globe and most of the lower-class population is suffering from a debilitating disease known as Nerve Attenuation Syndrome (aka NAS, or “the black shakes”), which is caused by the constant exposure to the technologies we cannot live without, leaving many to suffer despite the fact that a cure is out there. This societal imbalance has caused the rise of the LoTek movement. Groups of hackers and revolutionaries have risen to fight the corporate greed plaguing the world, forcing valuable data to be transported through human couriers wet-wired with hard drives in their heads.
One particular day in this future, a courier by the name of Johnny (or “Just Johnny” as Reeves declares repeatedly throughout the film) has been hired to carry some data on behalf of a group of researchers who used to work for PharmaKom (a leading pharmaceutical company). The job seems easy enough, until the Yakuza show up and Johnny realizes this isn’t going to be just another quick payday gig, since the data he’s carrying is actually enormous enough to make Johnny’s head (and what’s contained inside) quite possibly the most valued prize in the world.
Oh yeah, there’s also a psychic dolphin named Jones who happens to be humanity’s last hope, as he’s the only entity that can effectively read the data inside Johnny’s hard drive and transmit it out to the world.
Reeves was one of the more notable and bankable film stars of the 1990s. After establishing himself among mainstream audiences with his iconic performance as Ted “Theodore” Logan in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Reeves smartly followed up that role with a slew of unconventional choices, including a supporting part in Parenthood, co-starring in the criminally underrated Tune in Tomorrow…, as well as prominent roles in Point Break, My Own Private Idaho, Dracula, Much Ado About Nothing, and Little Buddha, just to name a few. In the summer of 1994, “Reeves the Action Star” was born when Speed arrived in theaters (albeit Point Break was the first film to set the stage for this transition), but instead of taking on more roles akin to Jack Traven, Reeves once again went against the grain and signed on for the lead in Johnny Mnemonic, one of the veteran actor’s first forays into the science fiction genre, and certainly not his last.
Johnny Mnemonic also features an eclectic supporting cast comprising many familiar faces. Dina Meyer (Starship Troopers, the Saw series) had just wrapped up a successful run on the wildly popular series, Beverly Hills, 90210, as a professor having an affair with Jason Priestley’s normally squeaky-clean Brandon Walsh. To see her pop up in a sci-fi action movie as Jane – a badass-yet-world-weary bodyguard – was rather unexpected (and most likely helped Meyer forge her career path in the future as a tough-as-nails performer). Acclaimed rapper Ice-T also co-starred in Johnny Mnemonic as J-Bone, leader of the LoTeks, right around the time he was really coming into his own as an actor after appearing in films like New Jack City, Trespass, Tank Girl, and Surviving the Game.
Legendary Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano also has a prominent role in Johnny Mnemonic as a corrupt PharmaKom executive hell-bent on retrieving the data stored inside Johnny’s head, while the great action star Dolph Lundgren also makes an appearance as the Street Preacher – a violent religious wackjob who provides his victims with a “come to Jesus” moment (usually via a gruesome crucifixion) right before their untimely demises. The role was a big departure for Lundgren and sadly, Johnny Mnemonic would be his last major theatrical appearance until The Expendables reinvigorated his career decades later.
Most notable to me, though, was the presence of Henry Rollins, the former Black Flag frontman who had just begun to make a name for himself in Hollywood as an actor. In Johnny Mnemonic, he portrays a street doctor by the name of Spider who was secretly working at a local clinic in hopes of curing NAS, but hadn’t received the necessary data in order to continue his important research. In a world filled with numerous over-the-top characters, Rollins’ character grounded the story and proved very quickly that he’s a force to be reckoned with in film just as much as he was (and still is) in the music world.
During my recent interview with Rollins, he praised his involvement with Johnny Mnemonic as being a huge part of why he’s been able to enjoy a successful career as an actor over the last several decades. “That was such a big break for me because it was a pretty important role to this world, and I think it almost fell into my lap, too,” explained Rollins. “I didn’t audition, I just met with Keanu and I think Robert [Longo] at some point, too, and we all clicked. You couldn’t have asked to work with two cooler and nicer guys than them.”
“It was a very challenging shoot because everything about the project was so ambitious, but my experience overall was great. I enjoyed the part so much because it wasn’t what people were expecting from me, and I’m grateful that I was able to be a part of it because the film absolutely helped launch my acting career, too.”
What’s always been really interesting to me is how oddly prescient Johnny Mnemonic ended up being. Gibson uncannily tapped into societal trends long before they became a reality, which is pretty cool (and admittedly kind of creepy). The story mainly focused on how detrimental our need for data and constant technological stimulation can end up being on both our bodies and our minds. Gibson’s tale also tapped into the idea of major corporations taking over in almost every facet of society, which, if you haven’t been paying attention over the last 20 years, has pretty much happened right before our eyes.
Johnny Mnemonic also dealt with very important issues surrounding the public’s suspicions that the pharmaceutical industry as a whole engages in some rather bad practices – either by making treatments and medication so expensive that only the wealthy can afford to treat their ailments, or by withholding potential cures altogether because it’s more profitable to keep people sick in the long run. Maybe its message wasn’t widely received at the time, but it definitely sticks out as a notable theme in Johnny Mnemonic even after two decades (and especially in the wake of the AIDS pandemic that preceded the film and was still a major health concern in the ’90s).
One last thing that always struck me as interesting about Johnny Mnemonic: the religious implications to the character of Johnny himself. He only wanted his life back, but instead had to carry the burden of saving humanity due to the information stored inside his head, making him a reluctant hero and a potential martyr. When you consider that Reeves would take on a similar role just a few years later in the aforementioned The Matrix, the parallels between the two films are rather uncanny in retrospect.
In the end, though, Johnny Mnemonic’s biggest fault was being too ambitious for its own good. Originally, Longo and Gibson envisioned their futuristic sci-fi collaboration as a smaller-budgeted punk rock project, but when Sony stepped in to finance it with $26 million, they were practically forced to make a film way beyond their initial, comfortable scope. And while much of the budget surely went to Johnny Mnemonic’s cutting-edge (for that time) graphics and CGI work, had Longo and Gibson been able to keep their narrative a bit more on point rather than incorporating numerous subplots to make the movie feel “bigger” to fit the studio’s expectations, then perhaps Johnny Mnemonic would get the credit it really deserves for taking a ton of risks and bringing cyberpunk cinema back into the forefront of pop culture.
Further marring Johnny Mnemonic’s story is Sony’s re-editing of the film to make it more marketable and palatable for mainstream audiences. In the end, this wasn’t supposed to be a movie for everyone, and the re-edits took away some of the project’s gritty attitude and charm (the director’s cut can only be found on Blu-ray in Japan at this time, which is a damned shame).
But, despite its flaws, I will always have a lot of love and appreciation for Johnny Mnemonic, especially for its slightly imperfect vision of a future that isn’t all that far off from the world we live in now. It’s a wildly eclectic action film (laser lassos!) that launched a few careers and propelled a few more, but in the end, it’s really only remembered as that “sci-fi movie Reeves made with a talking dolphin before The Matrix,” which is really too bad because Longo’s vision, coupled with Gibson’s fantastical imagination, is a pairing sci-fi fans should be hardwired to appreciate. Even if this isn’t the movie Longo and Gibson set out to make, their inventive and sometimes wonderfully outlandish approach to this bigger version of Johnny Mnemonic is something to be celebrated nearly 20 years after its initial release.