Eye Weekly (Ca), May 25, 1995

(3 of 5 eyes)
Starring Keanu Reeves, Dolph Lundgren and Takeshi.
Screenplay by William Gibson based on his short story.
Directed by Robert Longo.
(STC) Opens May 26.


by Denis Seguin

A data-stream passes down a mainframe corridor. The camera takes off after it, cat-and-mousing through light-nanoseconds of trunk fibre optic. As the camera gains on its target, you realize the stream is on a suicide mission, racing to crash itself into a wall of ice. Just before terminal impact, the data morphs into a recognizable pattern and you see for a moment the figure "10:30 AM." Then the wall. You go through it and you're looking at the business side of a TV screen in a hotel room.

This is the vaunted future ... in the form of a wake-up call. Good morning, Johnny Mnemonic.

In 1980, William Gibson wrote a short story set in an information age. Not a futurist utopia but a class-based structure of information haves and have-nots, capitalism stripped of its politesse. Foreseeing Japan's ascendancy, he placed the action in a megalopolis, a post-Tokyo sprawl. He imagined technological advances so great that they've hastened human devolution, an artificial intelligence so sophisticated that it renders human knowledge and interaction as quaint as a carrier pigeon.

And then he imagined how this future time might warp the peddling furies we call bike couriers, the carrier pigeons of today. Johnny Mnemonic is the story of a "mnemonic courier" -- an agent for hire who, having dumped his own memories, makes a living smuggling valuable data in brain implants. It was Gibson's third professional sale: Omni magazine paid him $800 (U.S., of course) and he bought himself a TV.


Inside a massive warehouse in Toronto, a bunch of sullen extras are lounging in the dark beside a city-block of scaffold jungle. Climbing up the stairs leads you to a junkyard of tomorrow. Trailers, caravans, power boats, trucks, cars -- all welded together into a patchwork quilt, like the nest of a mile-wide pterodactyl with a metal fetish. In the centre of a clearing high on a platform is an aquarium the size of a dumpster. Inside is a cyborg dolphin, wires issuing from its brain cap. And behind that is a tower of electronic Babel, a narrow pyramid built from dozens of television sets, all of them (un)tuned to static.

But so what? Another big Hollywood movie comes to town trading plump greenbacks for bushels of cheap Canadian currency. And eye puts it on the cover in flagrant contempt of local cultural sensibilities.

But hey ho, this show's Canadian, "an Alliance Entertainment production," and while there's a lot of Yankee coin in the money mix there's also plenty of yen, kronen, pesos and lire and whatever they keep in their wallets in South Korea. (That's won, stoopid -- Riled Korean-Cdn. ed.)

This is Johnny Mnemonic, the biggest production in Canadian motion picture history. And it stars Keanu Reeves, the former child who went to Jesse Ketchum Public School on Davenport Rd. Why, even the screenwriter is almost Canadian: William Gibson has been a resident of Vancouver since 1977 -- which means Johnny Mnemonic, the character, was born in Canada.

The production is, like Gibson, a landed immigrant that sprang from humble origins in the U.S. to find success north of the 49th parallel. Back in 1986, one year after the publication of Gibson's Hugo Award-winning Neuromancer, the novel caught the eye of New York-based conceptual artist Robert Longo, who was himself surfing a popular wave -- the hype pipeline of the '80s art scene. His work was multi-media to the max: canvas, sculpture, video screen and performance rolled into one.

Longo gave Gibson a call, found himself talking to a fan, and, over the space of three years, the resulting mutual admiration society led to a collaboration. Longo had directed music videos for Talking Heads and New Order and a short film for MTV called Arena Brains; now he wanted to try his hand at feature filmmaking and Elektra Records was willing to back him. He chose Johnny Mnemonic as the framework for an exploration of Gibson's ever-expanding oeuvre.

"It was supposed to be a low-budget, edgy art film," says Longo. But then, says Gibson, "The funding vanished, and we started looking for alternatives. We looked around Hollywood and said, 'Give us a million five.' It just produced giggles. We weren't being taken seriously at all. We weren't taken seriously until Robert realized we had to ask for much more money." When the pair started asking for $15 million, people began to return their phone calls.


The script was eventually optioned by Carolco, the independent studio behind films like Terminator. Then Carolco got into trouble and the script was picked up for peanuts by art collector and sometime producer Staffan Ahrenberg. He became partners with Peter Hoffman, a tax attorney gone Hollywood and one-time production head at Carolco. In the spring of 1993, they signed Val Kilmer to star in the movie and hired marketing expert Mark Damon to help pre-sell Johnny Mnemonic to the world.

This is the way movies get made these days. You offer a non-existent film to a distributor in a foreign land and they guarantee to pay you a certain fee when the finished film is delivered. Then you take those guarantees to a bank and they lend you enough money to make the film and then collect on the guarantees.

Val Kilmer, William Gibson, cyberspace: Johnny Mnemonic had sufficient kick to convince enough countries to kick in. In fact, Gaga, the Japanese distributor, wanted a little something extra. They were looking for a kick-ass vehicle for Takeshi, Japan's box office champ, and they were willing to finance additional footage featuring their star -- Kilmer didn't even need to be in the scenes.

But then, in October, Kilmer left the scene entirely.

Kilmer had wanted to play Johnny like Chauncey Gardner, the simple-minded hero of Being There; Longo didn't want him to. Following an artistic High Noon, Kilmer walked. Longo doesn't like to talk about it: "He became Batman, what can I say?"

The whole thing started to melt down. Without a lead, the entire production was in jeopardy; meanwhile (remember, this is the movies) money was flying out the window. Ahrenberg and Hoffman needed some fast cash to keep the project afloat while searching for a new lead. Hoffman called his old pal Robert Lantos at Alliance. Lantos gave them a couple of million and Johnny Mnemonic became an Alliance and, hence, Canadian production.

Meanwhile, Longo and Gibson were meeting with Keanu Reeves at the Chateau Marmont, the hotel compound famous for its late great champion speedballer, John Belushi.

Says Gibson, "I asked him (Reeves) why he had this short haircut and this (bulked-up) physique and he said he was working on this little movie called Speed. He didn't think it would do well but he thought it was fun." The show got its Johnny: that summer Speed made buckets of cash and Reeves became, in the peculiar vernacular of the industry, "a gross player" -- a marquee name that all but guarantees a profit.

Now, get this. TriStar, the heavy hitting studio that picked up Johnny for U.S. distribution, had initially set the film's world premiere for February of this year. When Speed went wild and raised box office expectations, the studio decided to hold the film for the summer competition. So they expected Gaga, the Japanese distributor, who were releasing in April, to respect their decision and likewise hold back its release. Gaga gave TriStar the finger.

Gibson foresaw Japan's ascendancy. Johnny Mnemonic is the proof.

Article Focus:

Johnny Mnemonic


Johnny Mnemonic , Speed

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