Johnny MnemonicReviewed By Andrew Howe
Posted 11/26/99 09:59:57
I hate to admit it, but I'm old enough to remember when heroic fantasy was considered the bastard child of science fiction.Back about 1980 or so it was a marginal genre at best, presided over by the omnipresent ghost of Tolkien. Sure, you might find that the odd release by Moorcock or Terry Brooks would garner some measure of recognition, but by and large the fantasy readership was a decided minority compared to the hordes who were purchasing science fiction by the barrowload. And as for recognition by a mainstream audience ... to consider such a notion was to laugh.
All that changed with the advent of Stephen Donaldson and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Here at last was an epic fantasy marketed to appeal to the kind of person who would normally pick up a Wilbur Smith or a Jeffrey Archer. I consider those books as important an event in the history of fantasy literature as the publication of The Lord of the Rings, and in their wake came a slew of fresh, talented authors devoted to revitalising the genre. Scribes like David Eddings and his Belgariad series, Julian May and The Saga of the Exiles, Raymond E. Feist and Magician... suddenly fantasy novels were disappearing from the shelves as quickly as they could be printed. More importantly, however, was the fact that most of these novels were *good*. Sure, they may have revolved around characters with stupid names who could well have stepped from the pages of a Disney story, but they were well-written, intricately plotted and epic in scope, and I am certainly not embarrassed to have those books displayed on the shelf next to my copy of The Catcher in the Rye (which is not to say that they possess the enduring literary merit of the classics, but you catch my drift).
Then, about five years ago, it all began to turn sour. It occurred to the publishing houses that there was money to be made in books of this kind, and so it came to pass that standards were let slide in the name of moving as many books onto the shelves as possible, the better to satisfy the ravening hordes. The prime culprit was TSR, the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. It started innocuously enough with a D&D tie-in titled Dragonlance, said book proceeding to sell like condoms at an orgy. So naturally they commissioned further titles, moving gradually from the games selling the books to the books standing in their own right, until in the fullness of time they took their rightful place as the Mills & Boon of the fantasy publishing world. Noting the success enjoyed by TSR other publishing companies jumped on the bandwagon, snapping up books by unknown authors which, five years before, would have been met not with wads of cash but a rejection slip.
I walked into a science fiction speciality bookstore the other day, and approximately half the new releases were fantasy novels. And, I am sorry to say, I can guarantee that at least ninety percent of those novels are shit. They are the literary equivalent of soggy oatmeal, penned by hacks, conforming to what the publishing houses thinks the public needs, and the few treasures are lost beneath the ever-rising tide of drivel. Even once-great writers like Eddings have sold their souls to the god of mammon, and I cannot see another renaissance arriving anytime soon.
And the worst part is the fact that the public actually purchases these pustulant offerings. Now, I do not believe that every person who reads TSR books is a brain-dead amoeba, the kind of person who thinks Dostoyevsky is a brand of vodka. Many of them conform to this stereotype, certainly, but I think there is another kind of reader, the type of person who realises the books are trash but accepts it in the name of obtaining a little "entertainment". What saddens me is that these otherwise upstanding members of the human race, credits to society one and all, do not mind that they are being treated with contempt. Contempt, that is, issuing from both the writer and the publishing house, each of whom knows they are peddling lowest-denominator trash, but who also correctly reason that there are people out there who do not mind being taken for fools.
The same thing happens with movies. We are treated with contempt every time a major forces a piece of brain-dead crud like Dumb and Dumber on our unsuspecting senses. We are laughed at every time we shell out our hard-earned cash for a soulless star-vehicle like First Knight. And we are taken for fools every time a studio exec dismisses the request of a writer that gaping holes in the plot be plugged with a wave of the hand and the words "They'll never notice."
All of which brings me to the case of Johnny Mnemonic, a sterling example of the above mentioned contempt which I had the misfortune to catch on video the other night.
I say this without qualification - Johnny Mnemonic is a *bad* movie (and when I tell you that the most interesting things about the film were the performances of Dolph Lundgren and Ice-T it should give you some idea as to just what I'm talking about here). Worse, though, is the fact that it is a slovenly movie, which is to say that the worst of its problems could have been so easily avoided. Easily avoided, that is, had the studio possessed but the slightest faith in the discernment of the viewing public.
There are two things wrong with this film. The first is the casting of Keanu Reeves in the lead role. Casting Keanu in a movie is not in itself a mistake - he did turn in fine performances in Point Break and Speed after all. However, what we have here is an example of star-vehicle casting so blatant as to be unforgivable.
Every actor has roles for which they are suited, and roles they are not. You would not, for example, cast De Niro as the lead in a romantic comedy a la When Harry Met Sally. You would not choose Robin Williams to play a cold-hearted stone killer in a gangster flick. None of this common sense, however, prevented Tom Cruise being cast as an elf in Legend, Richard Gere trying his hand at Lancelot in First Knight, or Kevin Costner doing a star turn as Robin of Locksley in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. "Stars sell," bray the studio execs, and so we get Keanu attempting to portray a cyber-courier in a Blade Runner-style futuristic metropolis. Consider Ralph Fiennes' masterful performance in Strange Days. Consider Keanu's impersonation of a block of wood in Johnny Mnemonic. Then consider the respect the studio has for your intelligence.
The other problem with this film lies in the plot. Now I have to say that, Keanu's performance aside (and that unforgivable "What I want" speech towards the end, which is quite simply one of the most inane slabs of drivel I've ever been subjected to), I quite enjoyed this film while I was watching it. It was only later, upon reflection, that I began to grow angry at the way I had been insulted. Allow me a moment to explain.
When you go to see Raiders of the Lost Ark or the latest Arnie vehicle, you're not too concerned about the way the plot hangs together. You know it's just a good-time flick, and as such you're quite prepared to suspend your disbelief and what you know about the laws of physics for as long as it takes to get through the film. However, when you view a period piece, or a science-fiction film, or a psychological thriller, you expect the plot to be logical. You don't expect supposedly right-thinking characters to act in irrational or stupid ways, and you certainly don't expect to be affronted by situations and events grounded in anything less than logical extrapolation from the basic facts of the plot.
I'll give you a little example of what I mean. In Johnny Mnemonic the arch-villain uses a weapon which could best be described as a laser-garrotte. It appears to be exceedingly effective, an assumption underlined by the way in which he uses it to slice through walls, doors and people. Now, the future postulated by the film is a violent place. Everybody is out for themselves, danger lurks around every corner, and as such nearly everyone seems to possess some kind of weapon. Guns, knives, crossbows - you name it, somebody's wielding it. And yet, despite the presence of what we can only assume would be a healthy black market (if not even perhaps a legal market) in weapons, the numero uno villain appears to be the only person who has access to this honky mono-filament slice-and-dice device. This is very convenient, since it enables the writer to shoehorn in several exciting scenes in which our heroes appear helpless before the power of this nifty piece of hardware. It is, however, a complete crock, since you know damn well that every inhabitant of the city with a reason to be afraid would be angling for the best possible weapon money can buy.
Now, I suppose it could be explained away by noting that the villain is employed by a research company, and maybe only that company knows how to build this particular weapon, but the fact is that I shouldn't have to explain it. That fact could have been revealed in one line from a character's mouth, but, as usual, the studio figured we'd either not notice or not care.
OK, so maybe that's not an earth-shattering example. So try this instead. The movie climaxes in a battle between the Yakuza and a bunch of rag-tag rebels who have been attempting to undermine the corrupt society in which they live. These rebels are the sworn enemies of the corporations, and would doubtless be shot on sight by corporation goons if they could be located. The corporations would like nothing better than to rid themselves of these pests, and as such they live life on the edge, always travelling in packs, always on the run from the Man. You would therefore imagine that they would choose as their base some secluded hideaway where they are unlikely ever to be discovered, right?
Wrong. Their base is, I shit you not, a towering structure made of discarded metal located within spitting distance of the city. Not only that, but their first line of defence is to drop flaming cars on intruders who stray too near the main gate, creating explosions which would be visible for miles around. It seems to me that, short of erecting a neon sign on the roof, there is little more they could have done to make themselves any more conspicuous (but then if they'd been relegated to an underground bunker the final battle wouldn't have been nearly as exciting, would it?).
But even that's not the crowning idiocy - I've saved the best 'til last. Picture this, if you will. The arch-villain is a high-ranking troubleshooter in the Yakuza. Given his stature in the organisation we can safely assume that he is known and feared by the populace at large, the stuff nightmares are made of. Early on in the piece he captures Keanu and threatens to decapitate him with the aforementioned piece of hardware. Keanu escapes, of course, and a chase ensues. It concludes with the hitman (who has evidently not thought to bring any of his associates along for protection, despite knowing the importance of his mission) stumbling like an amateur into a dead-end ambush set by the rebels (and there was, incidentally, no reason for them to be there in the first place, since they didn't know anything was going down. Did they just decide to leave the safety of their hideaway to go for a little late-night stroll through downtown Shitsville, the better to inhale some of that bracing evening smog? The more I think about it, the more it begins to fall apart.) Anyway, here we have a situation where the rebels finally have the drop on one of their (presumably) most feared and hated enemies, where they can blow him away without fear of repercussion (being as they are so well hidden in their satellite city on the outskirts of town, of course).
And so would you like to guess what they do?
They let him go. They let him walk, despite the fact that he's screaming words to the effect that he's gonna get them all, and good. When this scene was enacted there was head-shaking and groans all round, and in that moment we, the faithful viewers, were lost for good.
Contempt, pure and simple. The belief that we won't notice when we're being treated like morons, that near enough is good enough because, after all, it's only a movie.
Bullshit. And so I ask this of you - next time a movie insults your intelligence, do not shrug your shoulders, do not accept it on the grounds that it's only a movie, do not chalk it up to experience. Instead, get angry. Tell your friends, refuse to attend video evenings when you know it's on the menu, make it your mission to disparage the movie to everyone you meet, and give reasons so they don't think that maybe you're just lacking in taste. Hit the studios where it hurts, in the hip pocket, for by denying them even one extra ticket you're sending them the message that you will not be taken for a fool.We'll call it your good deed for the day, and then you can leave that old lady standing at the crossing with a clear conscience.
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