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Johnny Mnemonic

Year: 1995
Studio: Tristar Pictures
Director: Robert Longo
Writer: William Gibson
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Dina Meyer, Ice T, Takeshi Kitano, Dolph Lundgren, Henry Rollins, Udo Kier

This is one of those films so strongly rooted to the year it was released that if you watched it every five years while the world had moved on it you'd feel differently about it every time.

For one thing, writing these words as I am 20 years after the movie came out, the depiction of computers is now so quaint it would be easy to dismiss the whole film as being merely stupid – when hero Johnny first says he has 80 gigabytes of data in his head, it seemed like a huuuuuge amount in 1995.

As such I can't help feel very differently about it than I did the first time I watched in on a grainy VHS a few years after it came out. The years since, where filmmaking styles and technology as well as my own relationship to cinema as an institution, make it now seem very different.

It can't help but be held back by its era, so no matter how cool it was at the time it needed another dimension to achieve any kind of longevity. Luckily, where it could have been a very bland thriller, there are enough directorial and performing flourishes (very surprising for the normally wooden Keanu Reeves) that really work.

They were undoubtedly used in order to make the tone of the film match the slightly off kilter story, but what they do now over 20 years later is give the film enough of a skewed personality to keep it from feeling disposable.

Based on a story by geek hero author William Gibson, Johnny (Reeves) is a mnemonic courier, carrying digital data in an implant in his head and delivering it to recipients in return for lots of money and a lavish lifestyle. He even receives and delivers it by plugging a cable into a socket on the back of his head like he would a few years later in The Matrix.

As the film opens he's given some highly classified data in Beijing by some jittery scientists, information that it turns out the Japanese yakuza (led by Takeshi Kitano) badly wants, and they'll go to any lengths to retrieve it. Johnny barely escapes with his life intact when the bad guys storm in and makes his way back home to America to try and deliver his payload.

The other race against time is that there's so much data it's pushed the capacity of Johnny's brain beyond its normal limit and if he doesn't get it out of his head soon it'll kill him.

He travels to New Jersey and straight away falls into the care of a wily street woman (Dina Meyer) and the charismatic leader of a band of street ferals who believe in living life unplugged (Ice T), all the while with the clock ticking and fearsome killers one step behind.

After all these years since he became a movie star, Reeves still can't act, but the script here gives him a few little moments where he can break out more than he does in plenty of roles even today. Dolph Lundgren is an effective if underused villain and the production design and plot contain enough nods to the cyberpunk aesthetic Gibson pioneered, it's just that the story is too much of a mishmash to leave a lasting impression.

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