By Mike Shaeffer
Directed by Amy Heckerling
“I’ve been fulfilling a lot of people’s prophecies about me; I’ve become a real scumbag.” –Danny Vermin (Joe Piscopo)
In 1984, director Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless) gave us the comedy Johnny Dangerously, starring a dapper Michael Keaton, fresh off the success of Mr. Mom. Keaton’s performance in last year’s Birdman, which netted the Oscar for Best Picture, was one of his best. It was a delight revisiting his gangster persona to see just how well the actor and this gangster spoof have aged.
One of the first elements that establish this film as a gangster flick is the setting—the Lower East Side of New York City during the height of Prohibition. After a brief set-up introducing Keaton as our protagonist, we flash back to city streets filled with Studebakers, alleys ruled by an Irish mobster called Jocko Dundee, played with humor and charm by the late, great Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein).
After a wee visit to Johnny’s youth, we see how coming from a poor, single-parent family makes Johnny desperate to make some fast cash and help his ever-ailing mother, acted with deadpan grit by Maureen Stapleton. If Johnny wants a piece of the American Dream, he’s going to have to live dangerously. He’ll leave the law abiding to his straight-laced and sexually deprived kid brother, Tommy (Griffin Dunne), who ends up becoming the district attorney, and just like the disapproving matriarch from the original Scarface (1932), Ma Kelly does not approve of the gangster element (“With a father like ‘Killer’ Kelly, it’s a wonder neither of you turned out to be a piece o’ shit criminal!”).
The movie—especially the first half—is riddled with sight gags. Walking punch line and 80’s comedy staple Dick Butkus drives a Studebaker with the bumper sticker “I’d Rather Be Stealing,” and sexually frustrated Tommy is forced to watch an animated short called “Your Testicles and You.” Danny DeVito turns in a greasy cameo that would be echoed in the Oscar-nominated and gangster-centric L.A. Confidential (1997). DeVito’s bribery and extortion come to a close with a bright red smoking jacket. This colorful gift is given moments before an angry bull is loosed upon him. That malt liquor is lethal.
Every true gangster movie has its moll. In this case, it’s Lil, played by curvy redhead Marilu Henner. She sings, she dances, and she can dish out a quick one-liner. When Johnny asks her what they call her, she zings back “Impressive.” She is attracted to Johnny’s good looks, his arrogance, his humor, his expensive suits, and his edge—she knows he dabbles on the wrong side of the law, but that excites her.
The conflicts in the plot are numerous. Like the rival immigrant gangs that would surface in 1989’s Miller’s Crossing, Johnny Dangerously has the Irish facing off against Italian mobsters, led by the zany Roman Troy Moronie (Richard Dimitri), a mustachioed madman who, when he’s not butchering enemies with a tommy gun, butchers the English language. “Why you miserable cork-soaker!” is just one of his myriad of maligned profanities.
Johnny must also keep his dual identity a secret from his Ma and his DA kid brother, lest he end up in The Big House. There is also conflict from within his pack of hoodlums, most notably the nosy Danny Vermin. Danny is not content with the firepower and cliché of the tommy gun, so he bears a custom-made 88 Magnum that supposedly “shoots through schools.” Joe Piscopo revels as the villain among villains, turning in a performance every bit as nuanced as an .88 Magnum.
This gangster movie is a comedy, so it’s only a matter of time before our hero is found out, the law closes in, and Johnny’s love life and family are placed in jeopardy, but the only true casualty turns out to be the death of Piscopo’s acting career. I rented another Joe Piscopo movie once.
Mike Shaeffer is a slam poet, playwright, director, and English teacher who lives in Fairbanks, AK.