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It's strange to watch a period piece that itself is outdated. Johnny Dangerously starts with a narrative being told in 1935 that flashes back to 1910. Meanwhile, the film was made in 1984 and its references and style have a distinctly 80's feel: kind of clean-cut, kind of conservative, kind of Keaton. It's not just Michael Keaton, either. I wonder now what's happened to Joe Piscopo and Marilu Henner.
Beyond its stars and the many cameos (from Dom Delouise as The Pope to Ray Walston as The Newspaper Vendor), the film plays a lot of its humor by placing "contemporary" things in the world of the 1920's gangster scene, like break dancing and the Malt Liquor bull, elements so distinctly 80's that period pieces are being done now about them.
But the humor is both slapstick, with a whole posse of stunt double standing in for Keaton, and subtle. There are background jokes that someone took great care in creating and that you might not see if you don't get to watch it repeatedly on cable, such as the restrooms in the speakeasy labeled "Henchmen" and "Henchwomen." I saw this movie on cable at least 15 years ago, but still remembered several scenes that were genuinely funny, and charming above all.
The dated-ness surrounding dated-ness only adds to the charm of this movie. A spoof of the gangster genre, JD works the stereotypical plot lines, but mixes in a real friendliness that makes these good-boy bad boys sympathetic. Johnny's is the only gang in New York that gives presents to the community on Christmas and provides a dental plan for its members.
The movie begins in Johnny's pet store where a street urchin tries to steal of puppy. When he's caught, suave Johnny launches into the tale of his past as a gangster. I had recalled the gag that occurs as he enters the flashback, but it still made me laugh seeing it again.
As a boy, young Johnny Kelly is honest, selling papers to support his mother and brother. But his mom, played by Maureen Stapleton, needs an operation and so Johnny takes a job with the mob, helping the Dundee gang rob the nightclub of rival mob boss, Moronie. Moronie is an unforgettable character, an immigrant of unknown origin whose accent is thick, but whose pronunciation of swear words are ludicrous. My dad noted (back in 1986) that this movie gets away with a lot of swearing because the actor never actually says the words.
After this job, Johnny goes straight, but only long enough for the Johnny-boy actor to be replaced by Michael Keaton, the Johnny-man actor. After a brief break dance, Johnny is forced to return to the mob for money for another in a long line of operations for his mother. Johnny swiftly rises to the top of the Dundee gang and takes it over when the old boss decides to retire. Meanwhile, he has an uncomplicated romance with Marilu Henner, who plays hard to get for about ten minutes, and then becomes Johnny's one and only. Another funny scene shows them walking and talking all night, until they wind up somewhere near Ohio.
Meanwhile, Johnny's kid brother has made it through law school with Johnny's help and has decided to work for the DA and to fight crime. With the same kind of single-mindedness that Johnny Dangerously has for crime, Tommy Kelly devotes his life to wiping it out. The conflict is inevitable, and is launched by the scheming Danny Vermin (Joe Piscopo) who wants to oust Dangerously and lead the gang himself. Vermin frames Dangerously and DA Tommy Kelly has his own brother sent to death row. Then evidence surfaces that Johnny is innocent and Vermin is guilty. Vermin hatches a death plot. Johnny talks to a parrot. He escapes from the Big House! They zoom across town! Bang! Pow! Zow!
Action-packed and comedic throughout, the last half-hour of the movie really flies wrapping in a cameo by Alan "Skipper" Hale as the police chief, the classic "fake-priest reading the last rites scene," the mooning nun scene, and much more.
I was really glad to see this again. It is perfect when you're in the
mood for a light comedy, when you've had a hard day and just want to be
entertained. Though it's dated, it isn't too corny. It's also great for
the kids as it's clean (except for the mispronounced cusswords) and includes
an anti-smoking message delivered from Johnny himself. Enjoy!
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.