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Johnny Dangerously

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Johnny Dangerously
Theatrical release poster by Drew Struzan
Directed byAmy Heckerling
Screenplay by
Story by
Produced byMichael Hertzberg
CinematographyDavid M. Walsh
Edited byPembroke J. Herring
Music byJohn Morris
Edgewood Productions
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • December 21, 1984 (1984-12-21)
Running time
90 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$9 million[2]
Box office$17.1 million

Johnny Dangerously is a 1984 American crime comedy film, and a parody of 1930s crime/gangster movies. It was directed by Amy Heckerling; two of its four screenwriters, Jeff Harris and Bernie Kukoff, had previously created the hit series Diff'rent Strokes.

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

Part of the film's comedic appeal is the clever and frequent use of malapropisms by Johnny and other crime characters, especially in instances where curse words were intended.


In 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 by way of a flashback.

In 1910, Johnny Kelly is a poor but honest newsboy in New York City. Johnny's mother, Ma Kelly, needs an operation that his family cannot afford. Since Johnny's criminal father was executed, Ma has supported her sons by doing other people's laundry. Johnny's younger brother, Tommy, is fascinated by the law. Johnny gets into a street fight with a boy named Danny Vermin, which attracts the notice of local crime boss Jocko Dundee, who offers Johnny a job. Seeing no honest way to earn the money for his mother's operation, Johnny agrees, even though it would break his mother's heart. He helps rob a rival nightclub belonging to Roman Moronie, a malapropist of swear words. Moronie claims he never forgets a "fargin'" face. When Jocko asks Johnny for his name, he replies, "Johnny Dangerously."

Years pass. With Ma Kelly's continuing medical problems, Johnny decides to work for Dundee full-time. Everyone knows that Kelly is really Johnny Dangerously, except for Ma and Tommy, who think he owns a nightclub. Similarly, the gang knows nothing of Johnny's mother and brother. One day, Johnny comes to Dundee's headquarters to find he has taken on two new gang members: Danny Vermin, and his sidekick Dutch. Danny has become a "total scumbag" who uses opera audiences as shooting galleries. As the two gangs continue to war, Johnny falls for Lil Sheridan, a young showgirl new to the big city. Eventually, Johnny becomes the boss of the Dundee gang and negotiates a truce with Moronie.

Eventually, Tommy graduates from law school, unknowingly funded by Johnny's illicit earnings. He goes to work for the District Attorney's office, under D.A. Burr, who is on Johnny's payroll. Burr tries to sidetrack Tommy, who has become a major public figure after hearings look into Moronie's activities. Meanwhile, Burr and Vermin conspire to kill Tommy by cutting the brakes on his car. Tommy is badly injured, but survives. Johnny has Burr killed in revenge, which leaves Tommy as the new District Attorney. Vermin discovers that Dangerously is the D.A.'s brother, and Tommy overhears Vermin chortling about it. Tommy confronts Johnny, who agrees to turn over the evidence against himself to the Crime Commissioner. However, as Johnny enters the Commissioner's office, he finds him dead, and Vermin knocks him out and frames Johnny for the murder.

Johnny is arrested, but insists he was framed. He realizes that his lucky cigarette case is missing, and that whoever actually has it is the guilty party. Nonetheless, Johnny is found guilty, sentenced to the electric chair and sent to Death Row. But when Vermin congratulates Tommy, he drops Johnny's cigarette case. Pocketing the case, Tommy realizes that Johnny really is innocent, and that Vermin is the actual perpetrator. Johnny arrives on Death Row, where he receives rock star treatment from the starstruck warden. Johnny hears word that Tommy is in danger and plots an escape, requesting that the warden move up his execution to that very night. As he is taken to the chair, Johnny assembles what looks like a tommy gun from parts handed to him by inmates and bluffs his way out. With Lil Sheridan as his getaway driver, they elude their pursuers in a laundry truck which has been covered in multiple layers of shelf paper, enabling them to change their vehicle's description by peeling it off little by little. They arrive at a movie theatre where Vermin and Dutch are behind the screen, planning to kill Tommy. Johnny runs to the front row, sees Vermin's gun barrel protruding from a slit cut in the screen, jumps in front of Tommy, and shoots and wounds Vermin. Tommy is uninjured, as Vermin's bullet was stopped by Johnny's cigarette case, which Tommy had put in his jacket breast pocket. Vermin is arrested as the governor pardons Johnny.

The story returns to 1935. The young shoplifter is starstruck. The pet shop owner wraps up his story and sends the boy off with a kitten and the lesson "crime doesn't pay." When the boy leaves, the pet shop owner changes into a tuxedo and heads off in a limo with Lil, looking at the camera and admitting: "Well, it paid a little!", while officially revealing himself to the audience as Johnny.



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 44% "Rotten" approval rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes based on 16 reviews.[5] On Metacritic, it holds a rating of 54 out of 100 based on 10 reviews, indicating "Mixed or average reviews."[6] 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.[7] According to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, the film is both a gangster comedy and an homage to 1930s gangster films, but is perhaps too clever for a mainstream audience.[8] According to Leigh Hallisey, the film is a parody of "old-school" gangster films and reveals Heckerling's awareness of their conventions and stereotypes.[9] Foster finds the comedies of Amy Heckerling to rely on "fast-paced, witty repartee and droll humor", and draws comparisons to those of Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis.[8]


  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[permanent dead link], IMDb.com. Retrieved 2010-02-25.
  4. ^ ""Weird Al" Yankovic - This is the Life". YouTube.
  5. ^ "Johnny Dangerously". Rotten Tomatoes.
  6. ^ Johnny Dangerously, retrieved September 5, 2022
  7. ^ Hurd (2007), p. 24
  8. ^ a b Foster (1995), p. 175
  9. ^ Hallisey (2002), p. 232

External links[edit]