In Amy Heckerling’s hilarious send-up of 1930s gangster films, Michael Keaton stars as Johnny Dangerously, a devoted son who turns to a life of crime in order to pay for his mother’s operation. As a dapper kingpin, he manages to provide support for her never-ending medical problems while romancing a stormy torch singer (Marilu Henner), battling arch-rival Danny Vermin (Joe Piscopo), and exposing a corrupt D.A. (Danny DeVito). It’s a zany, wild spoof that’s riddled with as many gags as bullet holes!
eyelights: Michael Keaton’s physical chops. the subtlety of some of the humour. the recurring gags.
eyesores: Michael Keaton’s acting chops. the setting. the plot development.
“I’ve been fulfilling a lot of people’s prophecies about me; I’ve become a real scumbag.”
‘Johnny Dangerously’ is a 1984 gangster spoof by Amy Heckerling and starring Michael Keaton and Marilu Henner. Set in the 1930s, it tells the story of an honest kid who decides to make a leap into crime in order to pay for his mother’s expensive medical procedure. Skilled and quick on his feet, he soon becomes a neighbourhood folk hero, eventually reaching the top of his crime family.
But he has to contend with one challenge: his younger brother is a rising star at the District Attorney’s office, and he is bent on eliminating all crime.
I still remember when this picture came out because it was in high rotation on the local Movie Network. I remember seeing small bits of it and being completely disinterested; I never saw more than 5-10 minutes at a time, and never the whole thing. I never planned on seeing the movie, having been left with an aftertaste of middle-of-the-road humour starring b-level performers.
However, one of my best friends recently told me that it was a childhood favourite of his; he had only seen it in French, but he had seen very often. So I proceeded to pick up a copy of the DVD for his birthday and made myself a copy of it along the way. I figured that I might as well give it a chance, and at least find out what had drawn his attention so much as a child.
No, I didn’t watch it in French.
But, surprisingly enough, I did enjoy it. The jokes didn’t come fast and furious, but they were solid, with much of it being anchored in zippy repartee and in sight gags. At least from my perspective: I’m sure there are a lot of references to ’30s crime movies that I didn’t catch because I don’t watch many of those. But I still enjoyed it, so imagine if I got all the references as well…
Michael Keaton impressed me with his ability to spew dialogue and the way that he used his body to mine a little humour and develop his character (there was this smooth move that he did with his hat that particularly impressed me). This largely made up for his performance, which was anything but credible; he affected a Dan Aykroyd-type demeanor and facial expression that annoyed me.
The rest of cast was solid through and through. I was impressed with Marilu Henner’s ability to perform cabaret numbers, even as I found her looking a little out of place. Heck, even Joe Piscopo amused me, which is saying a lot. The picture is littered with character actors and comedians of all types, including Peter Boyle, Dom DeLuise, Danny DeVito, Griffin Dunne, and Maureen Stapleton.
It’s a heck of a cast.
Of particular note is Byron Thames, who played Michael Keaton’s character, Johnny Kelly, as a twelve-year-old: his acting chops were absolutely solid, but it was rather impressive to see the way he navigated the set and the screen; he was agile and precise, like a dancer. It’s a wonder why he hasn’t become a star, because his skill is so self-evident in this performance.
Sure, I found the plot a bit clichéd, but I suppose that this is typical, being a spoof of a well-worn genre. And, despite not being drawn to gangster flicks, I had a really good time watching this. I sat there with a smile on my face, knowing that I would return to it again in the future; I can already see it becoming comfort food or a late-night treat to soothe me to sleep.
‘Johnny Dangerously’ will be a grower, I’m sure. I’m really glad that I finally gave it a chance.
Date of viewing: December 30, 2015