Irish-American Crime Films: Johnny Dangerously (1984)

Michael Keaton as Johnny Kelly AKA Johnny Dangerously.

Michael Keaton as Johnny Kelly AKA Johnny Dangerously.

Johnny Dangerously (1984)

Written by: Harry Colomby, Jeff Harris, Bernie Kukoff, Norman Steinberg
Directed by: Amy Heckerling
Starring: Michael Keaton, Marilu Henner, Joe Piscopo
Summary: A genially surreal sendup of 1930’s gangster films buoyed by the easygoing anarchy of star Michael Keaton

1984 feels like a weird year to release a spoof early mobster movies. For one thing, it was a bit hard to see them. The video revolution was just getting underway, and it would be years before the studios raided their vaults to release most of their genre films. Film noir had a cult following, but that cult tended toward the moody, shadow-lit films of the 40s and 50s and not for the melodramatic gangster operas of the 20s and 30s. I remember the first time I saw 1931’s “Little Caesar,” still regarded as one of the classic of the genre: It was 1986 at a special screening at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and it screened for one night.

But, for whatever reason, a gang of screenwriters (there are four listed), “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” director Amy Heckerling, and Michael Keaton, then in his second lead role, decided to spoof the genre with “Johnny Dangerously”; moreover, they decided to particularly satirize the films of James Cagney. This was tow years after “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” which built an entire new movie out of scenes from earlier crime films, tying it together with funnyman Steve Martin playing a PI, but that drew from 40s crime films and today seems more like a strange experimental film than a comedy. Johnny Dangerous often feels like a purer form of homage, sending up conventions of a film genre that nobody remembered anymore.

The whole of it is done in the rat-a-tat, million-jokes-per-minute, throw-it-all-in-and-see-what-works style that “Airplane” had successfully translated to the screen, but borrowed from Mad Magazine. And, in fact, if “Johnny Dangerously” feels like anything, it feels like a Mad Magazine film satire — it’s breezy and cartoonish, filled with little slangy asides, and delights in silly names (Danny Vermin) and strange sounds (one of the film’s best running gags is an Italian gangster whose torrential foul mouth spews nothing but mispronounced curse words: You lousy cork-soakers. You have violated my farging rights.) Especially in he early scenes, the film is shot with a breathtaking verve: characters literally run from place to place, and one women, when summoned, leaps off her second floor window and slides down a pole to get to the ground floor. News reporters tend to rush whatever telephone booth is nearby, literally flinging whoever is in it over their shoulders like Russian tumblers. Johnny Dangerously can’t cross a street without machine guns emerging from every imaginable nook and crevasse to open fire on him.

The film is positively daffy, and Heckerling’s direction has been compared to Frank Tashlin, a Warner Brothers cartoonist who moved on to live-action films but continued to treat them like Bugs Bunny shorts. There doesn’t seem to be one sense of humor driving the film, but dozens, all squeezing in jokes wherever possible with barely any awareness that there is another joke going on at nearly the same moment. Star Keaton rides the thing with an easy charm and a wild grin — he had proven, and would prove again, that anarchic comedy was his metier, and he settles into this film like it’s where he belongs.

The story is simple, if the details are lunatic. Johnny Kelly is the son of an Irish immigrant women in New York’s slums, and turns to crime to pay for her poor health. He pays his brother’s way through law school, only to see his brother join the DA’s office and promise to bring him down. Other gangsters frame Johnny and attempt to kill his brother, leading to a spectacular death-row escape and a shootout in a movie theater that is playing Cagney’s “The Roaring Twenties.” The bones of the film are solid; this could be any of the dozen actual crime films from the era.

This is not a mother from a Cagney movie. It’s a cutout in the shape of a mother, designed to showcase whatever joke, however unlikely or silly, that the writers want to place on it.
But then Heckingly and company start to pile the jokes on. The mother, played by Maureen Stapleton, has an endless series of health crises, each less likely but more expensive than the predecessor. In the meanwhile, she does laundry, and her entire apartment is piled high with it, including an entire room filled with shirts that need ironing. She carries a vibrator in her purse and winkingly tells her daughter-in-law that she swings both ways. This is not a mother from a Cagney movie. It’s a cutout in the shape of a mother, designed to showcase whatever joke, however unlikely or silly, that the writers want to place on it. Every character is like this; the whole film is like this. But, because the film still hews to such a straightforward plot, it somehow manages to be chaotic without becoming completely lost.

Watching the film again recently, I think it holds up a lot better than many of the comedies of the era. It probably benefits from the fact that it was parodying a much older film genre, and certainly benefits from having Heckerling as a director, but a lot of 80s comedies traded in a sort of casual mockery that seems dated now, but, more than that, just seems mean, as though the primary targets of humor in the era where women (and their sexuality), gay people, and people of color. There is very little of that in the film, but instead we get a mounting collection of gently surreal humor coupled with a cartoonish slapstick sensibility. The film is mostly cast with television actors, which was a trick sometimes used to keep costs down, but makes the film strangely comforting. We’ve seen these people on television for years, and so the film has the feel of old friends getting together and goofing around.

I suspect this will beĀ  bit of a disappointment to those who want their comedy with bared teeth and red claw, and I suspect a truly vicious satire could be made from the same source material, instead of this collection of genial absurdity. The films that inspired these were tough and mean, filled with vicious psychopaths and sometimes shockingly cynical, and these elements are ignored in “Johnny Dangerously,” which, like it’s lead actor, has a frantic charm but no real menace.

But still, it’s hard to fault a film for being what it wanted to be instead of what you wanted it to be. The meaner film can still be made, if someone wants to tackle it. Now might be a better time anyway, as the old gangster films are much more available, and there have been a recent spate of similar films to remind audiences of what these sort of crime films are like, and why they are so thrilling. Call it “Johnny Murderously”; I’ll go see it.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.