Reviewing a 1945 Joan Fontaine comedy in the Nation, James Agee confessed, “I would like to be able to make The Affairs of Susan sound half as bad as it is, but I know when I’m licked.” Faced with the insuperable chore of writing about Johnny Mnemonic, I’m filled with a similar sense of preordained defeat. Words alone are inadequate to the task. Only by placing it in the context of other aesthetic affronts—Robert James Waller’s prose; Leroy Neiman’s painting; Andrea Marcovicci’s singing—can one convey some sense of its quintessential lousiness.
A pity, really, because the source material, William Gibson’s 1981 short story, could have been the basis for an outstanding movie. In 20 artfully compressed pages, Gibson created an acutely detailed cyberpunk vision narrated by a unique protagonist—an info-courier who transports secret data on a memory chip embedded in his brain. Gibson’s just-published screenplay effectively expands his tale into a precise shot-by-shot blueprint, a guide that any resourceful filmmaker could have followed. Too bad it fell into the inept hands of Robert Longo, making his directorial debut (and, if there’s any justice, his swan song).
It’s difficult to determine from the final cut—Johnny Mnemonic appears to have been shredded rather than edited—whether Longo stripped Gibson’s screenplay of all coherence, or if it was subsequently butchered by nervous producers. Premonitions of disaster emanate from the verbose opening crawl, a bungling attempt to clarify the narrative, similar to the “explanatory” headnote imposed on Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner. This printed prologue isn’t much help. Unless you’ve read the screenplay, you’re unlikely to figure out the relationships between the plot’s conflicting forces (the monolithic Pharmakom corporation; the Yakuza crime syndicate; the LoTek urban guerrillas) and the sketchily developed secondary characters (bounty hunter Street Preacher; data-broker Ralfi; renegade scientist Spider; LoTek leader J-Bone; and ex-Navy codebreaker Jones—a dolphin!). With Gibson’s narrative connections severed, all that remains is a series of disjointed, uninvolving action sequences and crudely executed special effects.
Blade Runner is clearly the prototype for this mess, in terms of both production design (a mixture of futuristic corporate architecture and retro urban squalor) and protag onist, an enervated functionary alienated from his own memories. Perhaps it’s too much to expect that Longo, with his background in painting, sculpture, and music videos, would be capable of cohesive storytelling and character development. But there’s no excuse for his drab, undynamic visuals. Even the film’s sole underivative set—the LoTek fortress “Heaven,” an assemblage of old railway cars, buses, trucks, boats, vans, and aircraft parts suspended from a bridge —is neutralized by slovenly mattework and blurry cinematography.
Dolph Lundgren, as the demonic, deceptively Christlike Street Preacher, outshines the rest of the cast, which should give you some idea of the level of ensemble acting. Ice-T is adequate as J-Bone; newcomer Dina Meyer is merely allowed to flex her muscles and look fetching as Johnny’s street-samurai bodyguard; Henry Rollins, cast as Spider, appears to be killing time between Rollins Band gigs and doesn’t even try to give a performance.
All that kept me from walking out of the theater—Johnny Mnemonic is too noisy for napping—was attempting to untangle the conundrum of Keanu Reeves. The popularity of many contemporary stars (Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland) is difficult to fathom, but Reeves is the most baffling of all. Obviously, he hasn’t a bit of acting talent, as anyone who has watched his affectless appearances in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Little Buddha can verify. (To date, he’s only been credible as a Dummkopf in the “Bill and Ted” farces.) He plods zombielike through the arduous role of Johnny, reciting his dialogue in an uncomprehending monotone. On the rare occasions when he attempts to emote—principally, Johnny’s ranting, existential monologue prior to the film’s climax—the results are unintentionally side-splitting.
Presumably, Reeves’ fans feel that his looks compensate for his lack of talent, but this notion leaves me even more perplexed. Johnny Mnemonic‘s story line necessitates considerable visual emphasis on Reeves’ data-stuffed head, unavoidably forcing viewers to notice the peculiar imbalance between that narrow, undersize control-unit and the rest of his lanky body. (I couldn’t help thinking about the fate of Irish Setters that, due to selective breeding, are now cursed with slender, elongated craniums that restrict their brains from developing beyond a state of semi-imbecility.) I even watched an MTV profile of Reeves to grasp some understanding of his popularity, but all that emerged was a half-hour of face-scratching, hair-fluffing, and inane giggling.
Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic—an enigma wrapped in a debacle.
Conversely, Mad Love, a bittersweet teen romance, shimmers with star power, but its appealing, gifted performers, Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell, are defeated by Paula Milne’s hackneyed screenplay. Punching up Romeo and Juliet with refinements pinched from more recent star-crossed updates—naive-boy-falls-for-demented-girl (The Sterile Cuckoo, Pretty Poison), doomed-young- lovers-on-the-run (Thieves Like Us, Badlands)—Milne pulls out all the stops to manipulate her female target audience. But moviegoers at the suburban screening I attended —a handful of moms with their preteen daughters—weren’t buying it and howled at each cockamamie contrivance.
O’Donnell plays Matt, an earnest Seattle high-school student overburdened by obligations to his 9- year-old twin siblings and bitter, abandoned father. Matt flips out over Casey (Barrymore), an uninhib ited classmate who has just arrived from Chicago. (We know she’s uninhibited because she chain-smokes and drives a yellow VW.) Soon she’s got him wading through waterfalls and ducking out on his SATs. When Casey’s control-freak father and dominated mother ground her, she attempts suicide and is committed to a psych unit. Infatuated Matt helps her escape, and the pair take to the open road, heading southwest.
Barrymore’s mercurial blend of Meg Ryan sweetness and Madonna audacity is neatly counterbalanced by O’Donnell’s Spencer Tracylike sincerity and stability. With a plausible plot and some speakable dialogue, they would make a distinctively contemporary romantic team. But Mad Love mocks their best efforts with its Neanderthal parent figures, dishonestly withheld bits of crucial information, glossy music-video interludes, spell-it-all-out pop psychology, and wheezy dramaturgy. (A close-up of a pistol in a glove compartment telegraphs the climactic scene.) Mad Love is a symphony of false notes, from the passé grunge fashions (which qualify it as an instant museum piece) to the dilapidated New Mexico crash-pad that the indigent lovers rent and somehow manage to decorate with $500 worth of flickering, photogenic candles.
Mad Love‘s only surprise—apart from the fact that it’s not a remake of Karl Freund’s celebrated 1935 Peter Lorre chiller of the same title—is that it marks the Hollywood feature debut of English director Antonia Bird, who has staged Edward Bond and Hanif Kureishi plays at London’s prestigious Royal Court Theatre, and is currently represented on-screen by the controversial Priest. It’s difficult to assign any motive but greed to her participation in a project that would give even the most undiscerning American schlockmeister pause. Only one sequence—Casey’s breakdown in a small Southwestern town, conveyed through claustrophobic close-ups and distorted sound—hints at the expressive talent she has previously exhibited. The rest of the movie is indistinguishable from the drudgework of any faceless Disney/Touchstone house director. I trust that Bird’s enjoying her new pool and tennis court.