Johnny Dangerously

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This article is about film. For other uses, see John Bramwell.
Johnny Dangerously
Johnny Dangerously movie poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster by Drew Struzan
Directed by Amy Heckerling
Produced by Michael Hertzberg
Written by
Music by John Morris
Cinematography David M. Walsh
Edited by Pembroke J. Herring
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
  • December 21, 1984 (1984-12-21)
Running time
90 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $9 million[2]
Box office $17.1 million

Johnny Dangerously is a 1984 American parody of 1930s' crime/gangster movies. It was directed by Amy Heckerling; its four screenwriters included Bernie Kukoff and Jeff Harris.

The film stars Michael Keaton as an honest, goodhearted man who is forced to turn to a life of crime to finance his neurotic mother's skyrocketing medical bills and to put his younger brother through law school. It also features Joe Piscopo, Marilu Henner, Maureen Stapleton, Peter Boyle, Griffin Dunne, Dom DeLuise, Danny DeVito, Dick Butkus and Alan Hale, Jr..


The year is 1935. A pet shop owner catches a young boy shoplifting a puppy. To discourage the kid from a life of crime, the owner tells a story.

It is 1910. Young Johnny Kelly is a poor but honest newsboy in New York City. Johnny beats up Danny Vermin in self-defense and discovers his mom needs an operation they cannot afford. Since the execution of Johnny's father, Killer Kelly, his widow, Ma Kelly, has supported Johnny and his younger brother, Tommy, who is fascinated by the law.

Johnny's fight with Vermin attracted the notice of local crime boss Jocko Dundee, and Johnny, seeing no honest way to earn the money for his mom's operation, sees no choice than to do a job for Dundee, even though it probably means breaking the law, and in doing so, "breaking his mother's heart". He helps Dundee rob the nightclub belonging to Dundee's rival, Roman Moronie. When asked his name, Johnny coins the name, "Johnny Dangerously", but Moronie, a malapropist of swearwords, never "forgets a fargin face."

Years pass. With his mom's continuing medical problems, Johnny goes to work for the Dundee gang full-time. He becomes a suave young man, with plenty of folding cash. The whole neighborhood (including the Pope) knows that Kelly is really Johnny Dangerously, but Johnny's secret identity is carefully concealed from his brother and mother. They think he is a law-abiding nightclub owner. Similarly, the gang knows nothing of Johnny's mother and brother. Tommy is now in law school, with a girlfriend, and somewhat of a prig—he wants to drop out of law school so he can get a job, marry his girlfriend, and "get laid." With the assistance of a public health film ("Your Testicles and YOU"), Johnny gets him to go back to law school.

Johnny comes to Dundee's headquarters—he is still involved in a running feud with Moronie—to find he has taken on two new gang members: Danny Vermin, and his sidekick Dutch. Danny has lived up to his potential and become a total scumbag, with a taste for using opera audiences as shooting galleries with his .88 Magnum pistol. Moronie, subtle as always, sends a robot with a machine gun to try to knock off the gang. He is not successful, and Johnny retaliates by knocking down Moronie's club (which was in need of expansion anyway) with a bomb dropped from a biplane.

The two gangs war. In the meantime, Johnny falls for a young showgirl new to the big city, Lil Sheridan, who, when she meets Johnny for the first time, asks him, "Do you know your last name is an adverb?". They go for a long walk together, ending in sexual fireworks.

The war continues. Moronie sends a plumber to plant explosives in Dundee's toilet. Dundee has a narrow escape, and he retires in Johnny's favor. Johnny negotiates a truce with Moronie.

A running gag has Ray Walston playing the owner of a newsstand who repeatedly gets knocked out when he is hit on the head by a pile of newspapers being flung from the back of a delivery truck. He temporarily loses one of his primary senses whenever he comes to. At various points throughout the movie, his character alternates between blindness, deafness, and amnesia.

Meanwhile, Tommy graduates from law school (Johnny's illicit earnings, of course, have paid for the tuition). Despite Johnny's efforts to steer him into a law firm, he goes to work for the District Attorney's office. A bit miffed that his money should be used to train a crimefighter, Johnny is nevertheless not worried—District Attorney Burr is on his payroll. The D.A. tries to sidetrack Tommy, but he becomes a major public figure. After he holds hearings looking into Moronie's activities, the rival crime boss is deported to Sweden despite his protests that he's "not from there."

Against Johnny's orders, Burr and Vermin conspire to kill Tommy. Tommy is badly injured, but survives. Divining the truth, Johnny has Burr killed—but this leaves Tommy as the new D.A.

Tommy recovers, and weds his girlfriend. Vermin discovers that Dangerously is the D.A.'s brother—and Tommy promptly overhears Vermin chortling about it. Tommy confronts Johnny, who agrees to quit the life of crime. The gang, though, is not as eager and suggests Johnny may be turning state's evidence against them. Johnny denies this, and goes to turn the evidence against himself to the Crime Commissioner—who Vermin has just killed, under circumstances that suggest Johnny is the killer. Not only that, Vermin steals Johnny's prized bubble gum case (formerly Dundee's cigarette case).

Johnny is arrested for murder, but says he is innocent and the holder of the case is the guilty party. Tommy tries the case against him. Johnny is found guilty, sentenced to the electric chair and sent to death row. But when Vermin congratulates Tommy, and Tommy notices that he has Johnny's case, he realizes Johnny is innocent. Ma Kelly sucker punches Vermin in the crotch, and the cigarette case drops out of the stricken mobster's pocket. Ma Kelly and Tommy realize that "Johnny didn't do it."

Meanwhile, his mom is using her contacts to investigate the murder. She finds the cleaning lady who is a witness to Vermin's presence. When Tommy hits Vermin with a grand jury subpoena, Vermin knows that he must kill Tommy.

Johnny arrives on Death Row, where he receives rock star treatment from the starstruck warden. He receives word of Tommy's danger, and plots an escape, prevailing on the warden to move up his execution. As he is taken to the chair, Johnny assembles what looks like a tommy gun from parts handed to him by inmates. He escapes in a laundry truck driven by Lil.

Johnny, through a wild car chase involving peeling layers of wallpaper from a car to keep changing its color, arrives at the movie theatre where Tommy is to be killed. He shoots and wounds Vermin, saving Tommy. The governor pardons Johnny as Vermin is arrested.

Back to 1935. The young shoplifter is round eyed. Having taken in the lesson that crime does not pay, he is given a kitten as Johnny Kelly, law abiding pet shop owner, says "Crime doesn't pay." The kid goes on his way. Johnny, dressed in a tux, heads off in a riotous limo with Lil Sheridan: "Well, it paid a little!"



The theme song "This Is the Life" was written for the film by "Weird Al" Yankovic, though for legal reasons, the song was not featured on home video releases of the film, until the DVD was released in 2002. The VHS home video version of the film featured a version of the Cole Porter song "Let's Misbehave".[3] The music video for Yankovic's song incorporates scenes from the movie.[4]

Critical reception[edit]

The film received mixed reviews, and holds a 47% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.[5] According to Mary G. Hurd, the film "is loaded with sight gags, one liners, numerous sexual jokes, and puns". But many critics found it to be a comedy which relies on sophomoric humor.[6] According to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, the film is both a rather clever gangster comedy and both a clever homage to 1930s gangster films. But perhaps too clever for a mainstream audience.[7] According to Leigh Hallisey, the film is a parody of "old-school" gangster movies and reveals Heckerling's awareness of their conventions and stereotypes.[8] Foster finds the comedies of Amy Heckerling to be relying on "fast-paced, witty repartee and droll humor". She finds Heckerling's sense of comedy similar to those of Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis.[7]

Martin F. Norden considers the film to be part of a trend in 1980s comedies, linking disability to humor. He notes that the film contains numerous gags of this nature. He spotlights a running gag, concerning a blind newspaper vendor played by Ray Walston. He starts out blind but a bundle of newspapers hits him on the head, causing him to regain his sight. A repetition of the accident then leaves him deaf.[9]


  1. ^ "JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY (15)". British Board of Film Classification. November 16, 1984. Retrieved March 5, 2015. 
  2. ^ Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p260
  3. ^ Johnny Dangerously (1984)—Alternate versions, Retrieved 2010-02-25.
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Hurd (2007), p. 24
  7. ^ a b Foster (1995), p. 175
  8. ^ Hallisey (2002), p. 232
  9. ^ Norden (1994), p. 290

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