Editorial 43: Johnny Mnemonic

At the start of every June is the Electronic Gaming Expo (E3), an event where developers and publishers show off upcoming titles and demos to the public. This year was okay with not many worthwhile announcements other than the Cyberpunk 2077 presentation. While the footage shown was pre-rendered, it revealed that Keanu Reeves would play a character before the man himself appeared on-stage. His presentation became a meme within minutes, but he reminded me of a lesser-known movie from his past. He is best known for Neo in The Matrix, but years before, Reeves was Johnny Mnemonic.

The early 80s and 90s saw an explosion of cyberpunk films. Blade Runner was the first to put the genre to screen and influenced many a prospective director. Hardware, the Nemesis movies, Class of 1999, Cybernator, and Hands of Steel were low budget attempts to capture the essence of Blade Runner. Whether they succeeded or failed is debatable, but because of the volume of such movies, cyberpunk was pigeonholed into B-movie status for years.

By the time Johnny Mnemonic (JM) came out in 1995, many tropes were established in how these movies were supposed to look based on budget limitations. The genre was still in its infancy and I imagine not many producers would take the risk of dumping money into projects about cyborgs. As a result you get a false equivalency: most cyberpunk films are cheap and thrown together, so all cyberpunk movies should be cheap and thrown together.

Rather than begrudgingly accept this fact, JM embraces it. From the very start, the film is proud to be a B movie, and does a great job of appearing professional.

From setting to setting you feel the desolation and decrepitude of the world. The opening hotel scene appears clean and tidy, but it is packed with people and cluttered with stuff that likely does nothing except take up space. Then you get to the truly ruined setting of Newark that is lawless and disgusting with trash piled in corners of run-down buildings. There is this anti-corporate resistance group called Lo-Tek living in this fort built of scrap and garbage on a destroyed bridge with tons of make-shift elements inside.

The costumes leave a bit to be desired. Everything looks mostly thrown together or pulled right out of the closet hours before shooting. Even the borderline homeless Lo-Tek guys look like extras from a Mad Max knock-off. Early on, Dina Meyer’s Jane wears this chainmail top that looks so out of place and uncomfortable that she loses it not long after. All the Yakuza goons wear trench coats that were three sizes too big. Then Dolph Lundgren’s Street Preacher is dressed like a friar that slept in a dumpster for three days straight and somehow he is this powerful cyborg.

However, all the awesome props throughout make up for the lack of better costumes. From mini-cd readers the size of pagers to a giant VR headset made of computer scrap, there are so many little things to admire because the tech in JM is analog. It came from a time when no one knew how advanced wireless would become; hardwire seemed the only way to connect back then. On top of that, it works in favor of the setting because the world is so rundown it has not progressed beyond analog. As a result we get physical, unique props that someone put effort into making appear real.

Good production value can only get you so far without a good story. The titular Mnemonic is a courier that stores information in his brain for delivery. On his latest job, the data Johnny downloads is so overwhelming that it will kill him in a matter of days unless he gets it out. While tracking down a specialist to extract the data to give to the client, Yakuza under contract by a major pharmaceutical company is on the hunt for Mnemonic’s head to take the data.

Given what we know about the storage capacity of the brain today, the story is totally far-fetched. At the start, Reeves plugs a device into his head to give himself extra gigabytes, which does not make sense unless it removed data because the brain retains about 2.5 petabytes. Unless Reeves had a ton of uncompressed crap in his head from other incomplete jobs to the point he deleted parts of his childhood to make room, still nothing makes sense. That being said, the story has stakes and a ticking clock to keep things moving along. Once you divorce logic from the equation it works a lot better and makes for a great cyberpunk adventure.

It also helps that the movie is just about perfectly cast. Actors from a wide variety of fields take up the supporting roles like B-movie veteran Udo Kier, the late voice actor Denis Akiyama, rapper Ice-T, and Takeshi Kitano, a legend in his home country of Japan. The only bad casting choice was Henry Rollins. Whoever thought that was a good idea probably lost their job. Everyone else does very well, but Lundgren had such a tiny part that why he was cast remains a mystery. All he does it show up when the characters need to be in more danger, but he is so non-threatening it does not matter.

The way Reeves plays Mnemonic is related to why he picked the roles he did back then. For years he was the Ted-half in the Bill and Ted movies, a skater-punk that travelled back in time for reasons (haven’t seen it). The kiss of death for actors is to become typecast in the same part over and over again because casting directors think you cannot act. Reeves played a pretty convincing skater-punk and signed on to not only a second Bill and Ted movie (soon to be third), but a show as well. To audiences at large that part was him and Reeves knew he had to show off his acting chops elsewhere, lest succumb to slow career death.

And so he branched out after 1990 with Point Break, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Little Buddha, and did not stop for nearly 24 years. Each new movie he showed off his skills as best as possible with varying degrees of success. The self-imposed demand for diversity shines through in JM where Reeves plays not only an arrogant scoundrel, but also a petty one. Mnemonic’s a morally neutral criminal that takes most dirty jobs and the last thing he wants is complication. When he gets the data uploaded, everything turns upside-down, and he just wants it out of his head. What begins is a cascade of hardships that culminate in a hilarious rant by Reeves that should have been better remembered had people actually seen it.

While JM is not the most remarkable cyberpunk movie, it nonetheless had a look and feel that influenced some, most likely the developers of 2077. Blade Runner may be the grandfather of the visual style of cyberpunk, but it was JM that perfected it if you ask me. Casting Reeves was a no-brainer considering his role as Mnemonic, but after re-familiarizing myself with the movie, I noticed JM had a lot more to do with 2077 than Reeves’ casting.

If you take a scene from the film and put it against any 2077 footage, they almost blend together. The degradation of the setting, rudimentary tech, and clutter are inherent throughout the movie and game. There is some wireless tech, but the hardwire element is still prevalent in 2077 with the characters putting chips in their heads or plugging into each other. It is not a clean setting either with grimy, dirty rooms packed with people. Little things also appear busy and overbearing with oppressive neon advertisements and clothing on the characters that is so complicated I cannot imagine wearing it in public… except the Samurai jacket.

Johnny Mnemonic is based on a story by William Gibson, the father of cyberpunk, and Cyberpunk 2077 is a follow-up to the TTRPG Cyberpunk 2020, which references Gibson’s work as the progenitor of that world’s punk movement. And being the visual realization of a seminal work of cyberpunk, it would be fair to say that Johnny Mnemonic had as much to do with the creation of 2077 as 2020. Casting Keanu Reeves seemed almost necessary. Whether other members of the cast or figures in the cyberpunk genre will also make an appearance remains to be seen.

Obviously I am going to write about 2077 when it comes out next year. Before then I will review the “Cyberpunk Red Jumpstart Kit” in August from the original creators of 2020. As a fan of the genre, the next several months are going to be great. Getting back into writing after an extended hiatus to talk about a cyberpunk movie was a great reminder of why I got into this hobby so many years ago. I apologize for the long wait and it will be a very long time before I leave you guys hanging like that again.

Editorial 10: The Punishers

Adapting superheroes was quite the challenge before the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Back then nobody could get it right and with every attempt came greater failure. In the case of Spider-Man, the Tobey Maguire version was on point until Sony ruined everything with bad direction and even worse writing. Then again, I think Spider-Man is a puss, so his movies can crash and burn for all I care. The same applies to the Fantastic Four who were just fine in their first incarnation before Fox got in the way.

Frank Castle, the Punisher, has undergone a similar evolution over the years. Any opportunity I get to talk about my favorite Marvel character, make fun of the UN, Australia’s government, liberals, or third-wave feminists, I tend to take it whole heartedly at the risk of going on an extended tangent. The character is my most favorite of the Marvel Pantheon and with the advent of his new incarnation on season two of Daredevil, I find it fitting to explore his evolution in film.

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Punisher is a simple character when it comes to concept, but he is complicated in origin and personality. In the Marvel comics continuity there are two versions of Castle: the Vietnam and Modern variant. Each version’s war origins are vehicles to explain Castle’s proficiency with weapons, but it is important to consider the broader implications.

The Vietnam War is one of the most shameful travesties in American history and no one experienced it worse than those who fought it. An ignorant public with no respect exacerbated the various problems soldiers brought home at the war’s end, resulting in suicides, homelessness, and addiction. If Castle fought in Vietnam, it makes sense he would fall into vigilantism. Here is a man who suffered a living nightmare shared by an entire generation, who comes home to his loving wife and two children, only to see them murdered before his eyes, destroying whatever humanity Castle had left.

All war is terrible, but in the context of modern asymmetric conflict, especially in a time when help for PTSD is more accessible, the concept of Modern Castle is not as strong. War is easier and efficient compared to the late 60s, not to mention the public and government’s treatment of veterans has definitely improved. The exterior factors that would facilitate a character like Punisher are simply not present.

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Personality probably plays a bigger role in Castle’s evolution. Both variants can posses either the Nihilism or Apathy types, and underlining both is Psychopathy. Reflected in the colors of his costume, Castle sees the world in black and white. People are either absolutely good or absolutely evil with no gray in between. He makes every decision based on this binary morality with no more thought than a squeeze of the trigger. Castle is also aware what he is doing is wrong. He understand vigilantism is illegal, yet continues his work because he believes in it. He does not care what laws he breaks or lives he ruins as long as he accomplishes the mission.

The Nihilism type is most prevalent in Garth Ennis’s Punisher MAX, which also uses the Vietnam variant. In the story Born, Castle assumes a kind of split personality on his final tour that would become the Punisher. This personality is driven by a hunger for war and bloodlust as a kind of PTSD that negates every other nonessential emotion. He is completely shut off from the world, relying only on instinct and his binary morality. He is efficient in his thought process and methodology, but retains the concept of innocence. He cares about protecting children like in the Mother Russia and Slavers books, yet has no problem killing women when they fall into the black side of his morality.

The Apathy type is more mainstream and similar to most action heroes, but not without the element of psychopathy. On that same logic, John Matrix, Paul Kersey, John McClane, Dutch, and Rambo are all psychopaths. They do not acknowledge nor care about killing scores of human beings and often laugh about it afterward. Apathy Castle is no different, throwing out the occasional joke like in Dark Reign when he used Pym particles to infiltrate a casino in a pizza before enlarging after being eaten. He does not acknowledge the implication of his violence, treating it like an everyday thing, while casually dispatching criminals without hesitation. In that regard, he has a lot in common with his contemporaries. Iron Man probably does not think about the long-term damage his repulsors, nor does Captain America when using his shield, or Thor with Mjolnir. The closest match to Apathy Castle is Black Window who immersed herself into the life of an assassin to the point she almost enjoys it.

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The film versions of Castle adhere to different combinations of his origin and personality variants. In some cases they subvert the comics and do something entirely different. The following summaries are ordered chronologically from the first incarnation to the last:

 

Dolph Lundgren, The Punisher (1989)

The most obvious choice for a character like Castle would be an action star if you were stupid. It is important to remember the comics were not what they are now, but what remained the same was the Vietnam origin. Unfortunately, the people behind 1989 forgot and made Castle a former cop, which dose not account for his very military skills and methodology.

Though Lundgren plays the Apathy type, he is too emotional in many cases. He cares about saving kids, but he also monologs about morality, God, and constantly questions if he is doing the right thing. Before the climax he turns himself in for no reason and whines in his cell. It also does not help that Lundgren is not the kind of actor for this material.

The way he kills is unbecoming as well. The opening was fine where he sneaks into a mansion, hangs a guy, and burns the place. Then he has a comical shootout in an abandoned theme park, a conspicuous fight on a pier that would have killed him in seconds, and a very loud infiltration of a building despite using a suppressed weapon. The worst scene was when he dropped into an illegal casino, told a Yakuza soldier to deliver a message to his boss, and shot up the slot machines and tables with an M60. The real Punisher would have dropped in, killed everyone, and left at least one criminal alive to carry his message because he did it about six times in Up is Down and Black is White.

Taking it as a pure action movie, 1989 succeeds when judged on its own merit. I could tell it wanted to be a Cannon Films production, but lacked the sheer insanity of Golan-Globus. However, when you use the name of an established character, be prepared for inevitable comparisons and judgments fueled by preconceived notions.

 

Thomas Jane, The Punisher (2004)

2004 is a complete reversal of 1989. Where Lundgren’s Castle was totally flawed, Jane was the second best and more accurate as a combination of Modern and Apathy. He brought a level of subtlety that defines the character’s emotional state because Castle is not one for expression. With a conservative use of one-liners Jane did a great job of epitomizing Castle’s action hero aesthetic without insulting the character. The alcoholism element was a little too on the nose, but it is not his fault because the rest of the movie is hot garbage.

Where 1989 was an actual 80s action movie, 2004 was trying to parody 80s action movies and failed. There was slapstick in some of the fight scenes, quirky roommates that get into shenanigans, and ridiculous villain characters that would have been better suited in another movie or with a different version of Castle. The movie is tone deaf and devoid of the irony that makes parody work. If you are telling a joke, it must have a point and 2004 is about as funny as an Adam Sandler movie. How can you make a story about a guy losing his family in a massacre, who turns to vigilantism funny? In what way is mass murder hilarious?

Do not get me started on the petty, boring tactics and lack of action scenes. Where the real Castle would find the people he is after and shoot them, 2004 Castle formulates a complicated scheme with many phases of planning that could have been simplified with a bullet.

 

Ray Stevenson, Punisher: War Zone (2008)

It took two movies and 19 years to finally get Castle right. War Zone is essentially a straightforward adaptation of Punisher MAX. It barrows the tone, a few ideas from In the Beginning, Kitchen Irish, and was the most accurate depiction yet. Ray Stevenson delivers a compelling dramatic performance with little to no lines and is built like a tank. On a physical level alone he nails the character as he delivers a fatal tackle here, a face-caving punch there, and efficient, calculated attacks that reflect better upon Castle’s military origins.

While it is a basic action movie, War Zone also successfully parodies the genre. By making the villains ridiculous to the point of cartoonish, it provides juxtaposition between the reality of killers and those of fiction. Castle is serious about his work and does not hide from the truth. He acknowledges he is a mass murderer and that there is no hope for any kind of redemption. The villain characters in War Zone do not care about what they do and enjoy it as if they were in an action movie. They are caricatures of criminal archetypes, like cosplaying Sopranos fans, and Castle is the naked reality of evil making them see the truth.

It is too bad the previous Punisher incarnations made War Zone poison to audiences. The movie opened amid behind-the-scenes drama and flopped, taking in only a third its budget. Thanks to fans like myself, however, the film has risen to cult status and director Lexi Alexander has been venerated for making the best Punisher movie to date.

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With season 2 of Daredevil just months away, there comes the question of how Jon Bernthal will fair as the new Frank Castle. Personally, I would rather see Ray Stevenson back in the part or even Michael Shannon in an adaptation of my script. However, I trust in Bernthal’s ability as an actor to do the very best he can while keeping in mind the history of the character. The quality of the incarnations has steadily grown over the years and it would be disheartening to see a back track into mediocrity. A bigger question is how the other elements will affect the character. Do the show runners and writers understand Castle or will they earn the ire of a very vocal fan base? We will just have to wait and see.