snapshot: Johnny Dangerously (1984)

US / 90 minutes / color with some bw / Edgewood, TCF Dir: Amy Heckerling Pr: Michael Hertzberg Scr: Norman Steinberg, Bernie Kukoff, Harry Colomby, Jeff Harris Cine: David M. Walsh Cast: Michael Keaton, Joe Piscopo, Marilu Henner, Maureen Stapleton, Peter Boyle, Griffin Dunne, Glynnis O’Connor, Dom DeLuise, Richard Dimitri, Danny DeVito, Carl A. Gottlieb, Ron Carey, Ray Walston, Dick Butkus, Byron Thames, Alan Hale Jr., Scott Thomson, Sudie Bond, Mark Jantzen, Gary Watkins, Mike Bacarella, Hank Garrett, Leonard Termo, Troy W. Slaten, Georg Olden, Cynthia Szigeti, Edward C. Short, Trisha Long, Hal Riddle, James Coco.

Michael Keaton as Johnny.

It’s 1910 in NYC, and the dispatch with which newspaper boy Johnny Kelly (Thames) sees off bully Danny Vermin (Olden) impresses passing mobster Jocko Dundee (Boyle). Jocko eventually hires the lad, who grows up to be the dashing Johnny Dangerously (Keaton), the gangster whom everyone loves because, like Jocko, he’s generous to a fault and makes sure no one ever gets hurt. Much.

Marilu Henner as Lil.

The only people in the old neighborhood who don’t know Johnny Dangerously is really Johnny Kelly are Johnny’s mom (Stapleton) and kid brother Tommy (Slaten). Somehow they retain this ignorance until Tommy, too, has grown up (Dunne) to become first of all an assistant to the corrupt DA Burr (DeVito) and then, when Burr dies in unusual circumstances, a crusading DA in his own right. His greatest desire is to crush the Jocko Dundee gang and especially Johnny Dangerously . . .

Peter Boyle as Jocko.

We’re told all this in a series of flashbacks from 1935 as Johnny, now owner of Kelly’s Pet Store, warns a young would-be shoplifter of the Dead End Kids sort (I think the actor’s Jantzen) of the downsides of a life of crime.

Marilu Henner is Lil Sheridan, the showgirl who steals Johnny’s heart. Joe Piscopo is the grown-up Danny Vermin, whom Jocko recruits to the gang but whose dearest wish is to see Johnny and Tommy dead. Glynnis O’Connor is Sally, Tommy’s true love. Richard Dimitri is Jocko’s arch-rival, nightclub owner Roman Troy Moronie. Dom DeLuise, though given prominent billing, is barely in the movie: onscreen for a matter of seconds, he plays the Pope.

Griffin Dunne as Tommy.

Johnny Dangerously parodies, heavy-handedly, the gangster-movie genre, especially the classics produced mainly by Warner Bros; there’s some parody also of the prison-movie genre. It relies on the same sort of formula as Airplane! (1980), The Naked Gun (1988) and the Scary Movie movies—over-the-top humor with so many verbal and visual gags that, even if most of them misfire, they’ll score enough hits that the average audience member will, with luck, remember having had at least a few chuckles. There’s even an animated short about testicles introduced for no logical reason. (The short, I mean. Not the testicles.)

The shoplifting kid (unidentified actor).

The movie sort of succeeds in its aim, though one can’t help wishing that its cast and budget had been put to better use. It’s no real wonder that director Amy Heckerling is better recognized for other items in her filmography.

Betty Boop explains testicles.


6 thoughts on “snapshot: Johnny Dangerously (1984)

  1. Good post, John. To me, this was one of those ubiquitous VHS titles that you couldn’t escape from in the late 1980s. I was 11 when the movie was released in theaters, and even at that discriminating age, I knew it somehow wasn’t as funny as the Airplane! or Police Squad parodies. I like the actors in the cast (then and now), but have no interest in revisiting it, despite your handsome screen captures here!

    Incidentally, Griffin Dunne starred in one of my favorite movies of my teen youth, the bruise-black Scorsese comedy After Hours. I think that movie, along with Ruthless People, Brazil, Heathers, and Harold & Maude, completely shaped my film storytelling worldview as I moved from kid to teen to adult.

  2. Thanks for your notes, Jason. Like yourself, I have no plans to revisit Johnny Dangerously in the near future, or in any future at all, to be honest. A shame because, as you say, there’s a pretty good cast.

    I’ve seen After Hours but can’t remember much about it, let alone that Griffin Dunne was in it. Now that‘s one movie I wouldn’t mind revisiting!

  3. You *should* revisit After Hours, since it is a movie that counts as noir in at least two senses: it takes place over the course of a nightmarish evening (and was shot mostly on a night schedule), so there’s a built-in darkness broken by islands of lit interiors (apartments, diners, bars); and it’s about a mostly innocent man who makes a bad choice involving a woman and then suffers the consequences. Plus, it has some very nimble Martin Scorsese touches. Just talking about it makes me want to dig it out from the shelves and watch it again… If you do view it, I hope you find it interesting!

  4. I don’t know how this film escaped my notice. Honestly, I’ve never even heard of it before, believe it or not. I will be on the look-out, only because I want to see how it parodies the Warner gangster films.

    • I was surprised I didn’t know about it either. As I watched, there was some dim sensation deep inside me that I’d been vaguely aware of the movie when it was released, but that was about it. As an item of interest it’s worth picking up if it comes on TV, or whatever; as a movie simply to spend a guffaw-filled evening with, not so much.

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