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.

Movie Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

The first John Wick was the third movie I ever reviewed in the bygone year of 2014. That was the first and last time I saw it, but I remember it fondly. It did something original with the gunplay, making it personal and up close using the technique known as center axis relock. While I do not know of its real-world application, it was well suited for John Wick and set it apart form the norm. The film did not take itself too seriously either, going for fun in the same vein as Commando. At the same time, it established a small wealth of lore that was easy to understand where most movies would not have bothered. Where does Chapter 2 take the Wick Mythos roughly two years later?

After finishing off the Russians and retrieving his car Wick, played by Keanu Reeves, returns home to give up his life of crime for good. As soon as he buries his weapons in the basement, however, he is visited by an old acquaintance looking to settle a debt.

I take back everything I said about Return of Xander Cage. It sucks… hard. Chapter 2 curb-stomps that film into oblivion before setting the corpse on fire and throwing it into oncoming traffic. Chapter 2 is not only a better movie, but also a better action movie that sets the standard for years to come. If its cotemporaries follow its example, then the future seems a little brighter for the genre.

Right from the start there is a perfect balance of style and substance. What started as seemingly superfluous lore is expanded upon and integrated in Chapter 2. It presents this underworld with rules, traditions, and hierarchy that the characters are beholden to and must operate within. Even if it is not important the little details of world building add leagues of depth. A single line uttered by Franco Nero’s character said more about the world than a whole page worth of exposition in any other movie.

All these details give life and meaning to the meat of Chapter 2: the action. I remember in Suicide Squad, that despite the okay combat and characters, I could not care less because there was no substance. There was nothing to enjoy or latch onto beyond the superficial. A cool action sequence is not cool unless you have something to care about or consider while it is happening.

The first half of Chapter 2 is spent building up the world and fleshing out Wick’s overall struggle to retire. With the death of his wife, he is intent on staying out of crime, but is bound by honor and the world’s rules to remain a part of it. You get what the characters are about and how the world operates before the start of the second half. There the film veers head long into the action and the style that separates Chapter 2 from its contemporaries.

Imagine if Nicolas Winding Refn, the man behind Neon Demon and Drive, decided to direct an action movie. It is strange that such a violent feature like Chapter 2 is shot with the touch of a true auteur. There is colored lighting, long shots, and meticulous set design in service to building this atmosphere of underlining dread that runs parallel with the narrative of Wick being dragged into the abyss. The ending scene in particular involves the typical house of mirrors trope on psychedelic drugs. Even without substance the film could stand on its visuals alone. All it needed was a synth soundtrack.

The action itself has been vastly improved since the first. There are more gun battles with a higher body counts, and more creative situations. As the movie progresses, Wick is left to his own devices, forcing him to improvise by disarming opponents or using his fists. There are a good handful of large, multi-layered set pieces that evolve as they wind down or ramp up. The sequence that sets off the second half begins with a subtle assassination, followed by a tunnel gunfight that ends in a brutal melee. A lot of it seems the same, but there are enough scenarios to break up the potential monotony. It also helps that the brutality of said scenarios is incredible and kind of hard to watch with how close the people are shot.

Though Reeves is not the most expressive actor, he more than makes up for his shortcomings in the physical department. From what I could tell he performed most of his own stunts to the point he looks exhausted. The gunfights show off the most skill where he practices complicated reload techniques and quick draws that are probably more cool looking than they are useful. Ruby Rose shows up as the mute Ares and almost steals the show with simple facial expressions. She has a lot more to do here than in the third XXX without cheap lesbian one-liners to remind the audience that she likes girls.

One negative that must be considered is also an important component to the story. Chapter 2 is very dark in tone, but reflective in what Wick goes through and what the world does to him. He does not want to be there, yet the powers that be will not let him go, even after he accomplishes his mission. The pace is also slow as it builds upon Wick’s suffering and it works. You feel bad for him and the brutality of the violence further punctuates how he feels about the situation.

I am tempted to see John Wick: Chapter 2 a second time. Despite the darkness of the tone and story it is also fun to watch from an action standpoint. Like Commando there are many scenes that will stay in your mind for days to come. The opening and ending scenes alone warrant admission. With that said, before you do anything this week, go see it, regardless if you saw the first John Wick.

Movie Review: The Neon Demon

Of the many directors I like, Nicholas Winding Refn is probably my favorite. He focuses heavily on style without ignoring substance, something many directors cannot do. His films are colorful, beautifully shot, and the use of synth is just incredible. They also carry a very art house quality that varies between each movie. His last feature, Only God Forgives, relied heavily on symbolism to tell the story of a man rebelling against God. After repeat viewings I finally understood Valhalla Rising and it became a major inspiration. The most straightforward of Refn’s filmography is the Pusher trilogy, Bronson, and Drive. Does The Neon Demon faithfully carry on his style or has he become more accessible?

After coming to LA to make her name as a model Jesse, played by Elle Fanning, becomes the talk of the town for her perfect beauty. Her quick rise to fame attracts the attention of Sarah and Gigi, played by Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote, as the two become dangerously envious.

Art house films are simple, but complicated. On the inside they are easy to understand, yet they are constructed in a manner unique to the status quo. Making a simple movie complicated is how directors standout. The Revenant was about revenge and filmed with natural lighting. Birdman was about coming to terms age shot in a faux long shot. Without Alejandro Inarritu’s sense of style, those movies would have been no different than any other.

Neon Demon is about how beauty is all consuming. What sets the film apart is the element of horror that comes through in the aesthetic. The cinematography is fantastic as usual, but it is the lighting and color scheme that sells the grotesquery, much like Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Along with neon are highlights of shine amongst bright colors that fill the screen. The ambient synth score enhanced the beautiful lighting with a slow rumble that would build to a beat in moments of intensity.

The writing deserves a special mention. Neon Demon is a great example of how you write characters and exposition. Introductions are single lines of dialog that establish personality, attitude, and where characters will go as the story progresses. It is great writing that does not get bogged down in explanation and gives you room to think about what is going.

The eccentricity is easy to understand except for one scene. There is a part where a spoiler happens, but after a cut it seemed like it did not happen. I was confused because I could not tell if the scene was a dream sequence or real. It is the only problem I have with the movie.

The performances were pretty solid considering the material. Fanning was great at conveying naiveté while Lee and Heathcote were devious as walking caricatures of models going through emotional turmoil. Jena Malone was the absolute best as Ruby, a make-up artist obsessed with Jesse. The way she carries herself exudes the desperation of her character and it was brilliant. I would say her performance is worthy of an Oscar.

For any fan of Nicholas Winding Refn, seeing The Neon Demon is a foregone conclusion. If you are coming for the synth, cinematography, and color, you will be right at home. To ordinary moviegoers, if you have an eye for craftsmanship and the art of cinema, look no further. It is even better if you are a fan of horror.

Movie Review: John Wick

The current state of the action genre is nebulous to say the least. On the one hand we have the straightforward Dredd, and the self-indulgent Expendables, supplemented by the annual Liam Neeson revenge/mystery. All are serviceable, becoming the First Blood/Commando of this generation; new archetypes for what we will know as the go-to action template for years to come. But this only compounds the problem of monotony in film where everything starts to look the same. This brings us to John Wick, a movie you have seen over and over again.

The plot is the definition of simple:

A former hitman loses his wife and tries to move on by taking care of a beagle puppy she left behind. Said beagle becomes the embodiment of her memory and his reason for going on. But after earning the ire of Iosef, the son of a Russian Godfather, played by Alfie Allen, the puppy is murdered in the ensuing burglary of his home. This sets Wick off (no pun intended) on a tirade of bloody revenge.

Ultimately the plot doesn’t matter in regards to the rest of the film. For those who watch movies, this kind of story is as common as white on rice. There is not much you can do in a narrative that has been done so many times I could fill the entirety of this paper listing off titles. But where Wick conforms, it makes up for it in action and tone.

Combining the close-quarters of a brawl with the put-down power of a pistol, the fight scenes bring a new take to shoot-outs. Most, if not all of the kills with guns are point-blank with Wick dispatching his foes close enough to feel their final breath. It puts a brutal spin on an elementary fact of the action genre, something not achieved since Raid: Redemption. If there is any reason to see this film, it is the gunplay.

What Wick also does well is where it falls short. After the beginning it becomes apparent the film does not take itself seriously. The actors behave likewise, making an effort to ham-it-up for the sake of dry, yet decent humor. The only downside is there wasn’t enough ham. Michael Nyqvist, the best of the performances, was drunk and high as the Godfather Viggo, playing a charismatic caricature of a gangster, having the most fun with the material. It’s a shame Keanu Reeves did not enjoy himself as much, but his typical, blunt acting works to film’s advantage.

The world of Wick is so comically dumb it’s brilliant. Being a criminal means you belong to a cultish guild, where everything and everyone is paid off in gold tokens, the police leave you alone, there are cleanup crews for crime scenes, and there is a hotel/neutral zone exclusive to gangsters and killers alike.

The ridiculousness of these ideas, juxtaposed with Wick’s utter seriousness, enhances the self-deprecation while making it serious. Simply put, John Wick has been affected by his years as a hitman, whereas those of the guild go through the motions of criminality as if they were born into it. He is the only one aware of what he has done and the people he kills do not know, nor care they are evil. For him, murder is an awful thing, but he has a noble, sympathetic reason behind it.

Another film that does this the best is Punisher: Warzone, a love-letter to the fans. The villains are walking jokes while Frank Castle is cold and humorless. Castle takes no enjoyment in his actions, refraining from one-liners, and overtly elaborate kills, favoring simple and efficient methods. To quote comic book writer Garth Ennis, “Frank Castle makes the world sane,” in the same vein as John Wick.

Bottom line, the film needed more ridiculous, but it is nonetheless enjoyable with unique gunfights, and simple camera work that will make you wish shaky-cam was banned. However, if you find yourself wanting for something sweeter, I highly recommend Punisher: Warzone for how well it handles the same themes.