by Shlomo Schwartzberg
Keanu Reeves is fighting for his life in Heaven. That's the name of a makeshift satellite feeding station set up on an abandoned bridge by a group of renegades called Scavengers.
Esconced in a corner of a humonguous Etobicoke warehouse, I'm watching Keanu Reeves shoot a key scene from the expensive, special effects-laden "Johnny Mnemonic". Evidence of the film's logistical complexity abounds, the "futuristic" weapons lying around the place, the catwalks rising above larger than life structures, standing in various locales in the film, even the computer and TV screens, so many of them that a separate room is needed to house the technicians who will be bringing their virtual reality to life. The atmosphere on set, however, is fairly relaxed, no doubt due to the loose working style of director Robert Longo. Only the film's star is incommunicado; under no circumstances, I'm told, will Keanu deign to speak to anyone from the press. His concentration needs to be focused on the work at hand, says "JM"'s American publicist.
More than 80 TV monitors piled tree-high loom above Reeves who, as the crew-cut Johnny Mnemonic, is in mortal combat with Dolph Lundgren who plays Street Preacher, the founder of the Church of the Transfiguration. The tall Swedish actor is strikingly clad in Biblical flowing robes and covered with wounds and small implanted nodules along his arms and torso.
It's the year 2026 and the information highway has arrived with a vengeance, bringing along with it a new deadly virus, MAS, which is caused by radiation from computers and the new technology, and which kills everyone who contracts it. Johnny Mnemonic has the cure for MAS, only it's locked up in computer data bits inside his head and the Yakuza, which dominates organized crime worldwide, doesnt want that info to get out. They'll do anything, including cutting off Johnny's head, to stop that from happening.
If "JM" sounds pretty grim, that's to be expected, as it's based on a short story by Vancouver writer William Gibson, the man who created the "cyberpunk" movement in science fiction with his landmark award-winning 1984 novel "Neuromancer". "JM", like "Neuromancer", proffers a world of rampant technology, soulless corporations running everything, and a future where the lines between man and machine have been blurred beyond recognition. "It's not "Demolition Man", it's more like "Blade Runner"," says producer Don Carmody.
The $28 million movie is thus a big risk for Alliance, which produced it, albeit one that's lessened since Reeves proved in "Speed" that he's got what it takes to propel an action movie. The good box office for last fall's "Timecop" and "Stargate" also helped; SF seems to be once again a draw for audiences. Nevertheless, it's clear that "JM" is still a difficult sell, if only because it deals with concepts that are pretty sophisticated for the movies, and that is not what fans have wanted in films of that genre. The special effects, heavy on the virtual reality, are by the folks behind "Total Recall" and Robert Heinlein's "The Puppetmasters", among others.
Robert Longo, director of "JM", doesn't think that the movie will even be advertised as SF. "I think they'll [the distributors] market it as an action film."
A well-known New York artist and video director (REM's "The One I Love", New Order's "Bizzare Love Triangle"), the pony-tailed, casually dressed Longo is making his feature film debut with "JM", an involvement that came about through his longtime friendship with Gibson, who also scripted it. Longo cites numerous films, including "Alphaville", "Blade Runner", "The Conformist", and "Touch of Evil", as influences on the look and feel of "JM". "My reference points were really just all over the place," he says.
"This movie is, rather than a collage or pastiche, more like a collision. The first [riot] scene in the movie is right out of "Triumph of the Will"; where the Gestapo is marching. It's the same shot, and then it turns into "Z" and then into "Brazil". I wanted to make it so you couldnt quite figure out what it was. Everything is done very deliberately in the sense that you consider that there are 8000 single frames in a film, I'm trying to make each one a picture." And because many of his early paintings derived from movie stills, for Longo, "JM" is "kind of like completing the cycle".
Asked about the [then] odd choice of Reeves as the hero, Longo replies confidently, "I'm a great fan of Keanu. I think he's a real interesting actor and I think he's going to probably be one of the great ones. He's working real hard on the movie. It's not an easy role for an actor to hold onto because the character's back story isn't real, as a result of all the identities that have been implanted into him in the past." Reeves is playing the role, adds Longo, "as somewhere between Paul Newman in "The Hustler" and a robot". The eclectic cast also includes musician/actor Henry Rollins, Dina Meyer (Beverly Hills 90210) who plays Johnny's bodyguard, Ice-T, Udo Kier ("Europa") ; Takeshi Kitano ("Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence") and Barbara Sukowa ("Lola"), Longo's wife, who is Anna, Johnny's dead mother and "the conscience" of the film, according to producer Carmody.
Though the shoot is going well, Longo is still surprised he landed the job directing "JM". "It's extraordinary that all these people got involved in this movie with me as a first-time director." The final result of his neophyte labours will be on our movie screens in June.