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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

JOHNNY WAS -- movie review by porfle

(NOTE: This review originally appeared online at in 2006.)

Johnny Doyle (Vinnie Jones, X-MEN:THE LAST STAND and LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS) was a member of an Irish terrorist group until he finally got tired of blowing up innocent people and quit.  As JOHNNY WAS (2005) begins, he just wants to go straight and fade into the woodwork of his London flat where he lives between a Rasta pirate DJ named Ras (Lennox Lewis) upstairs and Julius ("E.R."'s Eric LaSalle), a two-bit Jamaican drug kingpin, downstairs. 

But Johnny's former mate, Flynn (Patrick Bergen, PATRIOT GAMES, SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY) will never give up the fight, and never see the casualties of his bombs as more than "collateral damage."  And now that Flynn has just busted out of prison, he needs a place to lay low while the area is crawling with cops.  His only choice is to drop in on his old pal, Johnny, both disrupting his new life and sparking a tense, racially-charged confrontation with Johnny's violence-prone neighbors downstairs.

It's a pretty cool premise and director Mark Hammond makes the most of Brendan Foley's screenplay, with an excellent cast at his disposal.  There's plenty of action, but the characters are the most important thing here and I was interested in what happened to them the whole time. 

Everything on the technical end is well-handled, and the pervasive reggae score--Ras plays the records really loud during his radio show--is an added benefit that might have you wanting to buy the soundtrack CD.

Things are tense from the start as mind-his-own-business Johnny heads downstairs to go to the store and inadvertantly walks into a scene in which Julius is harshly dealing with a smack-pilferin' lackey named Sparra.  Julius tolerates Johnny's presence as long as he stays out of the way, but this promises to become less likely as Johnny grows increasingly fond of Julius' main squeeze, the lovely Rita (Samantha Mumba, THE TIME MACHINE remake), who only stays with scary Julius because he doles out the white powder she's hopelessly hooked on. 

Later, when Sparra comes screaming for help and ends up dead in Johnny's doorway, the abrasive, hair-trigger Flynn's presence will ignite this powderkeg once and for all, and everyone will end up pointing guns at each other while Johnny watches his new, non-violent lifestyle go up in smoke. 

In an interesting turn of events, Flynn ends up making a lucrative deal with Julius to become his new chemist, in addition to ensuring that certain members of Julius' competition will begin to explode one by one.  But there's more to the devious Flynn's offer than meets Julius' avaricious eye.

I like Vinnie Jones a lot and it's nice seeing him get to play a real character here instead of the seriocomic cartoon character that was his murderous but likable bank robber Winston Briggs in SLIPSTREAM.  You can really sympathize with Johnny as he tries to go straight, especially after the flashback in which he finally has a change of heart and we see him frantically warning people about that last bomb he helped set in an outdoor food court.  Everyone gets away except for one young woman who is painting a mural while listening to headphones--she turns and smiles at him right before she dies, and her face will haunt him from then on. 

Patrick Bergen is well-cast as Flynn, playing him with a wide-eyed intensity that makes you feel this is a guy who doesn't mind blowing people up to serve his political fanaticism.  He's a heartless killer, but I couldn't help liking him somewhat as he takes on the equally-monstrous Julius and screws with him in a big way. 

As Julius, Eric LaSalle is all casual and easygoing until his friendly smile fades and he starts killing people.  It's fun to see LaSalle get to prove his talent by playing someone so different from his longtime character Dr. Benton on "E.R."  Samantha Mumba, who was very appealing in the 2002 remake of THE TIME MACHINE, is even better here with her subtle, assured performance as Rita. 

In a lesser role, Who frontman Roger Daltrey comes off well as Johnny and Flynn's former boss, Jimmy, mainly because he isn't given that much to do.  And former world heavyweight boxing champ Lennox Lewis lends an air of quiet authority to his role of Ras, the pirate DJ who is not only a good friend to Johnny but a king to his fellow Jamaicans, which comes in handy later on when Johnny, Flynn, and Rita need all the help they can get while running for their lives from the revenge-crazed Julius even as the police are closing in from all sides.

At the end, you get to find out what the movie's title means, which isn't a huge surprise or anything but is a nice touch nonetheless.  The surprise comes right after that, and it's a pretty good one.  It allows Johnny to do something heroic for a change, make up for some of the bad things he's done in the past, and feel sorta good about himself at last.  Which, if you like his character as much as I did, will make you feel sorta good, too.

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