Johnny Dangerously: The Best Movie You Never Saw

Long before he was Batman, Michael Keaton starred in a pretty funny gangster spoof called Johnny Dangerously.

Ya know that feeling when you watch something dumb, and even though you know it’s stupid, you can’t help but laugh and enjoy yourself? The 1980s are full of comedies like that. Yeah, we know they’re dumb and not especially clever, but whatever, man, every now and then, you’re in a bad mood, and you want to turn your brain off. That’s why they made seven Police Academy movies. No one thought they were good, but we watched them anyway because they were stupid in a pleasing way. 

This brings me to this rare comedy-focused episode of The Best Movie You Never Saw, about a movie I loved as a kid that doesn’t super hold up forty years later, but it is still kinda fun – Johnny Dangerously. A gangster comedy in the vein of Airplane, Johnny Dangerously is probably a movie many younger viewers wouldn’t get because it satirizes James Cagney gangster movies from the 30s and 40s. Still, if you like older movies, this one is a treat.

It stars Michael Keaton in the title role. Long before he was Batman, or even Beetlejuice, Keaton was a hotshot young comedy star. He killed in a showy supporting role in the Ron Howard movie Night Shift, which landed him the lead in the comedy classic Mr. Mom, one of the ten biggest movies of 1983. Johnny Dangerously was his follow-up, with a curious creative team behind it. The film was written by a couple of old pro-comedy writers but had a highly unusual choice for a director, Amy Heckerling. At the time, she was one of the few female directors in the business, coming off Fast Times at Ridgemont High, one of the era’s hippest films. This was part of a brief try by Hecklerling to become a comedy director for hire. Apparently, this one went fine, but she had a miserable time with Chevy Chase on her follow-up, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, which led to her opting to work only on her own projects going forward.

Back to Johnny Dangerously. Keaton is perfectly cast as a good-hearted gangster during the Depression named Johnny Kelly, aka Johnny Dangerously. He works as a gangster to pay for his mother’s never-ending series of operations and to put his kid brother through medical school. He never had to do anything particularly bloodthirsty, as he works for a good-hearted older crook, Jocko Dundee, played by Peter Boyle. When his mentor steps down, Johnny gets the reins to the syndicate but has to deal with a traitorous underling, Joe Piscopo’s Danny Vermin. 

As I said, this is highly inspired by James Cagney movies, particularly The Public Enemy and The Roaring Twenties. The latter film actually figures heavily into the plot. Keaton’s Johnny is a very Cagney-esque mug, with Piscopo playing a take-off on the bad guy parts Humphrey Bogart played before he reinvented himself as a good guy. He and Piscopo seem to be wearing eyeliner, which was common for actors in black and white films in the thirties, but it’s super noticeable on colour film, which is pretty funny. 

It’s an interesting piece of 80s nostalgia, with the cast very much of its time, particularly in the casting of two Taxi vets, Marilu Henner and Danny DeVito plus SNL’s Joe Piscopo. Danny DeVito wasn’t yet a household name, with him only really breaking out beyond his fame on Taxi once he did Romancing the Stone, the same year as this. Marilu Henner never quite made it onto the A-list as far as movies go, but she’s fun as Johnny’s nightclub chanteuse love interest, a tough-talking dame in the Bette Davis vein. 

As for Piscopo, he’s unfairly a bit of a punchline these days, but he’s actually really funny in this. At the time, Piscopo and Eddie Murphy were pretty much the only two reasons to watch Saturday Night Live, and it likely looked like Piscopo would be a big star. Apparently, director Brian DePalma was a massive fan of this movie, which is why both Piscopo and DeVito ended up starring in his own mob comedy, Wise Guys. Piscopo has all of the movie’s funniest lines (“this is an 88 Magnum; it shoots through schools.”)

johnny dangerously cast

The movie wasn’t all that big of a hit in theaters, which is why some of you watching this that weren’t born in the eighties may not have heard of it. It made $17.1 million, which wasn’t bad for 1984, but had a curious home video release, where the theme song, which Weird Al Yankovic sings, was dropped in favour of a cover of the Cole Porter song, ‘Let’s Misbehave’, which also features in the film. However, the Yankovic songs has been restored on all recent releases of the movie.

Overall, this is a fun flick, and you have to give it credit with how racy it is for a PG-13 comedy. Back in 84, the rating was still brand new, and they were able to get a ton of leeway by having the movie’s bad guy, Richard Dimitri’s Moroni, being a master of the malapropism, so he’s able to say things like ‘fargin’ iceholes’ or ‘cork soakers’ without too much trouble from the MPAA. You can find Johnny Dangerously streaming on HBO Max and Cinemax but it seems out of print on DVD and never got a Blu-ray release, which is a shame.  

Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/johnny-dangerously-the-best-movie-you-never-saw/

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