Movies and radio in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s were filled with Johnny's: Johnny Allegro, Johnny Angel, Johnny Apollo, Johnny Dark, Johnny Dollar, Johnny Eager, Johnny Holiday, Johnny O'Clock, Johnny Valentine; the list goes on and on, and most of them were either crime fighters or gangsters. Obviously, the field was ripe for parody when this 1984 spoof came along about a mob boss named Johnny Kelly, aka Johnny Dangerously. The fact that it's not a very good spoof is beside the point. It tries, and for its first thirty minutes or so it succeeds.
The director is Amy Heckerling, who has had pretty much a hit-and-miss career in films. On the one hand she's responsible for "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Clueless"; on the other hand she's made "National Lampoon's European Vacation" and the "Look Who's Talking" series. I've never found any of her films especially funny, but they've often been enormously popular. "Johnny Dangerously" can't even make that claim, being one of her more-modest box-office outings.
The star of the show is Michael Keaton, who was coming off a winning performance in "Night Shift" a couple of years earlier but was still a few years away from "Beetlejuice" and "Batman." His time would come, but it wasn't quite yet. He plays the lead, a nice, sweet, jaunty fellow named Johnny Kelly, who in flashbacks to 1910 and 1930 tells the story of his life in crime to a young thief he nabs in his pet shop. Keaton may be at the core of the film's problem, though, not quite knowing how he wants to play the part. He could have done it seriously tongue-in-cheek, but instead he plays it with a wink and nod, a perennial choirboy even when he's supposed to be the big, bad head of the city's top crime syndicate. It's hard to take his character seriously (for laughs) when Keaton himself doesn't appear to take the part seriously. He's supposed to be tough and intimidating, but he's always far from it, and the comic idea of a goody-two-shoes bad boy only goes so far. Worse, while Keaton invests the part with a requisite vigor, he has almost no good lines to rely on.
Anyway, he tells the tale of his involvement with crime: how as a boy he saved the life of a notorious big-time mobster named Dundee; how he joined the gang and changed his name from Kelly to Dangerously; how he rose quickly in the chain of command; how he became so famous in his neighborhood, they started selling t-shirts with his name on them; how he fell in love; how he handled a rival mobster and a rival mob; and how he decided finally to call it quits with iniquity and open a pet shop. It's quite a lot for one story to cover, which is yet another of the film's weaknesses because it never sticks with anything for very long.
In fact, the movie is left to the supporting cast to carry it through, and it's here the picture sparkles. The supporting players are terrific. Unfortunately, none of them has more than a good bit or two here and there, or the movie might have succeeded far beyond what it does. First and foremost is Joe Piscopo as Danny Vermin, a new member of the Dundee gang and a thorough rat. Piscopo, fresh from his success on "Saturday Night Live," plays his part with a devilish bravado; maybe it's just that villains are often more interesting than heroes in films, but I thought he stole the show. He's got an 88-magnum handgun so big "it shoots through schools." Next is Peter Boyle, no stranger to villainous roles, playing the aging head hood, Dundee. If you liked him in "Young Frankenstein," you'll like him here, although he has far less to do. The always watchable Maureen Stapleton plays Ma Kelly, Johnny's mother, a wonderfully sweet-appearing but foulmouthed lady who is indirectly responsible for Johnny's going into crime. Seems she has a new ailment every ten minutes that needs a desperate operation, and in the days of the Great Depression, only crime paid.
Next is Marilu Henner as Lil, the nightclub singer Johnny falls for. Then, there's Griffin Dunne as Tommy, Johnny's younger brother who becomes the Assistant DA and has to bring Johnny in. Among the smaller roles are Glynnis O'Connor as Sally, Tommy's longtime fiancée; Dom DeLouise as the Pope (yes, THE Pope); Danny DeVito as Winston Burr, the corrupt District Attorney; Ray Walston as a news vendor who keeps getting hit on the head with bundles of newspapers and losing and regaining his hearing and sight and memory; ex-linebacker Dick Butkus as Arthur, one of Dundee's drivers and bodyguards; Alan Hale, Jr., as a police desk sergeant; Bob Eubanks as an MC; Jack Nance as a priest; Ron Carey as a doorman; and I'd swear Jonathan Winters as a corpse, but if so he's uncredited. As I said, a great crew to work with.
Finally, there's Richard Dimitri as the head of a competing gang. His claim to fame is a penchant for badly mispronouncing words, his only gimmick but one that makes his character memorable. "Saya your prayers, icehole," he tells Dundee at the beginning of the film. Later, when Dundee survives his attempts to shoot him and the gangs are at each other's throats, he declares, "This is fargin' war!" Whether it's an intentional in-joke or not, I'm not sure, but this guy's name is printed on the sign in front of his nightclub as "Moronie," but in the closing credits he's called "Maroni." Take your pick; maybe his mispronunciations are supposed to be so bad, he can't even spell his own name right. Or maybe it was an oversight on the part of the filmmakers.
In any case, you get the idea. The jokes are largely silly, sometimes juvenile, and they come faster at the start of the movie than at the end. By the time the conclusion rolls around, we're faced with things like Johnny living at the "Gangster Arms" apartments, with his neighbors Al and Cindy Capone, Legs and Shirley Diamond, and Pretty Boy and Pretty Girl Floyd. Mrs. Capone comes over to borrow a cup of bullets. You'd think that with all the gangster stereotypes and gangster clichés that abound in the cinema, the scriptwriters could have come up with something a little more clever.
The film is presented in a standard widescreen, rendered on the disc in a 1.74:1 anamorphic ratio. It may not be the widest of wide, but it is exceptionally well delineated, with sharp, generally clean image outlines. Colors are exceptional, too, deep and natural. This is the kind of color you wish every movie had on video. The picture quality overall is reasonably clear, a little grainy in patches, a little rough in others, but with virtually no trace of line jitters, pixilation, or other digital artifacts. In all, it's a fine transfer.
The sound is as unexceptional as the picture is good. It's in Dolby Digital stereo, to be sure, but you could hardly tell it was stereo unless you put your ear to the left and right front speakers. The stereo spread is that narrow. And forget about any activity in the surround channels. The soundtrack's dynamic response and frequency range are also ordinary, and the general audio output favors the higher octaves, making for a slightly bright, hard sound. Otherwise, the audio reproduces dialogue distinctly and renders musical lyrics clearly. Frankly, there's not a lot else for it to do, so I suppose it suffices.
There's hardly anything in the disc's "Special Features" category to warrant attention. Mainly, there are seven pan-and-scan trailers for other Fox DVD comedy titles, a widescreen theatrical trailer for this film, and thirty-two scene selections. I was struck by the fact that there were more laughs in Fox's trailer for "There's Something About Mary" than in all of "Johnny Dangerously," perhaps an unfair comparison but definitely a moment of truth. Oh, well. English, French, and Spanish are the spoken languages on the disc; English and Spanish the subtitle choices.
Given the terrific cast involved and a territory ripe for ribbing, "Johnny Dangerously" should have been a lot funnier than it is. I mean, you can't say gangsters aren't a good subject for caricature; "Some Like It Hot" sent up the gangster genre big time a quarter of a century earlier. No, I think first the comedy writers and then the director ran out of steam early in the film and found themselves with nowhere to go. And the film doesn't just run out of laughs; it becomes positively leaden by the last half hour. Still, for those moments when it does click, it may be worth a glance; and Piscopo in particular, as I've said, is a delight. The movie has its ups and downs with a lot of flat stretches in between, making overall for a very ordinary ride.