RETROSPECTIVE: Johnny Mnemonic


Before there was The Matrix, there was Johnny Mnemonic.

Keanu Reeves’ first foray into the cyberpunk genre came in 1995, four years before the Wachowskis’ genre-redefining classic, but not in a way likely to make his career highlights reel.

Johnny Mnemonic slots neatly into a trend of blockbusters fascinated by the possibilities of the still-emerging internet. That year alone also gave us Hackers, Strange Days, and Virtuosity. All of which struggled with a key dramatic question: how to visualise this new virtual realm. The answer generally involved lots of furious typing, scrolling text, and pre-PlayStation graphics.

At least Johnny Mnemonic had the source material, a short story from one of the fathers of the genre, William Gibson. He even wrote the script. All the elements are there – a neon-lit mega-city full of cyber-augmented denizens, and Reeves’ Johnny, a courier with a deadly overload of priceless data in his head. However, the film is closer to The Running Man with more interest in the freak parade than themes like technological intrusion and corporatocracy.

Johnny Mnemonic was intended to be an “arty 1-1/2-million-dollar movie”, according to its first-time director Robert Longo, but ballooned into a $26 million tentpole. That said, for an “arty” version of Gibson’s material look no further than 1998’s New Rose Hotel, an erotic thriller directed by Abel Ferrara; which manages to reduce a corporate espionage to a scenery-chewing Christopher Walken and bored-looking Willem Dafoe growling half-baked philosophy and having sex in red-lit rooms.

At least in Johnny Mnemonic you get vengeful Yakuza, Dolph Lundgren as a psychotic, muscle-bound cyber-Jesus, a hacker dolphin named Jones, and a supporting cast including Dina Meyer as augmented bodyguard-love interest Jane; Udo Kier as a slimy, treacherous middle-man; Ice-T looking like a reject from Battlefield Earth; a wasted Takeshi Kitano; and musician Henry Rollins.

It’s violent, silly, sub-Blade Runner stuff with an odd, stilted performance from its leading man (he was nominated for a Razzie for it), woeful dialogue (“Everybody and his mother wants to kill me!”) and no cliche left unturned (it’s meant to be Johnny’s last job), but it occupies an interesting spot in cinema history.

With Reeves having recently returned to the genre in video-game Cyberpunk 2077 and with Matrix 4 due for release in December, now if ever is the right time for a revisit.


Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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