A look back creative energy and high-grade silliness that made Keanu a cyberpunk star.

Between Albert Pyun’s Nemesis and The Wachowksi’s The Matrix, the 1990s gave us another awesome cyberpunk flick. Johnny Mnemonic was penned by genre grandmaster William Gibson himself (based on his own short story), so it carries the official cyberpunk seal of approval. The theatrical cut of the film was not what Gibson and director Robert Longo envisioned, as it was heavily re-edited by greedy studio producers. But even this annoyance cannot prevent us from having fun with Johnny Mnenomic, so let’s have a look!

Johnny (Keanu Reeves) is a courier carrying data that is implanted in his brain. After receiving the files for his next job, he learns that his chip has been overloaded and will kill him if not extracted. To make matters worse, one of the mega corporations, who control all of society, has an interest in the data, and sends its Yakuza goons and the cyborg assassin Preacher (Dolph Lundgren) after him.

All the Electronics Around You Poisoning the Airwaves

The initial idea the films presents to us is that uploading data to your brain puts it off the grid and can be transported undetected. And there’s tons of other cool cyberpunk concepts thrown around at rapid pace. Johnny’s world is plagued by the Nerve Attenuation Syndrome, a deadly disease caused by overexposure to digital technology. It’s an ingenious foretelling of the side effects of our permanent exposure to screens. The digital plague didn’t turn exactly out that way but the alarming rise in depression and anxiety linked to things like obsessive Instagram use is all too real in our time. 

The film also reflects aggressively on the fear of big corporations taking over the digital world, who are shattering the early dream of a truly free and democratic internet. Damn you, AOL. In our time we won’t find a forceful minority such as the Loteks that violently advocate for a digital detox, and instead of rebelling against the omnipotence of the tech corporations, we’ve been sedated by them.

I Want to Get Online! I Need a Computer!

And the brute capitalism critique doesn’t end there. Eternal life is reserved only for the richest of the rich, and the consciousness of an ex-CEO is resurrected as digital persona in the company network. I appreciate it when films throws so many ideas at you that you almost can’t keep up, and when it all is wrapped in an action film template, it becomes an irresistible pleasure, at least for me. 

The film got the brains (even though there is some damage), and it also got the looks. Cutting edge cyber technology exists side by side with the ruins of a past analog world. Anything goes fashion-wise, suits, body armor, rags and everything in between.  There are many colorful, wonky VR sequences showing the internet as a literal information highway with 1990s style computer graphics.

They’ll Negotiate, They’re Corporate.

Johnny is arrogant and a pretty dumb guy throughout the whole film, and Reeves plays the part correspondingly, with an empty stare and somewhat strange intonation of his lines. Reeves’ slightly lunatic interpretation of his role may also be inspired by the fact that Johnny’s childhood memories have been erased to make room for the data chip. So he may have forgotten if he was raised as a decent human being, and how to produce meaningful facial expressions. 

Besides Reeves, the film has a fantastic cast of character actors that indulge in hamming it up: Ice Cube, Udo Kier, Henry Rollins, Dolph Lundgren and Takeshi Kitano, what an ensemble! And let’s not forget the greatest animal character to ever grace an action film, hacker dolphin Mr. Jones. Ice-T’s raw tirades sound like he wrote them himself, and I could listen for hours to Reeves and Rollins yelling techno babble and pessimistic social commentary at each other. Dolph Lundgren delivers the most eccentric performance of his career, as equally ridiculous and menacing villain, a cyborg assassin who believes he is a catholic priest.

That Motherfucker’s Got God and Technology Ass-Backward

Johnny Mnemonic is also an action film, and the mayhem comes at a good rate. Admittedly it’s not that exciting what Longo puts on the table most of the time, and the cinematography is a bit wonky in the action sequences. The firepower and explosions do not rise beyond standard fare, but they provide enough excitement and are properly embedded into the story. We get plenty of awesome big-ass guns, and the ultimate melee weapon: a laser whip that slices people into ham! The finale is wonderfully chaotic, with burning cars flying through the air, and many people dying bloody deaths.

Johnny Mnemonic never wastes a single second, and gives us an overload of ideas wrapped into high-grade silliness. It’s creative energy may occasionally be misdirected, but the effort to create an uncompromising vision shines through everywhere. It’s fantastic entertainment, and this glimpse into the ingenious mind of William Gibson became one of the ultimate cyberpunk flicks!