80’s Trash of the Week: Johnny Dangerously

Before Michael Keaton became Batman and disappeared, he was a comedy actor. Those evil eyebrows couldn’t hide a zest for humor, from movies like Night Shift to Mr. Mom. This 30’s gangster spoof is one of the best of its kind from the 80’s, after the ZAZ masterpieces Airplane! and Top Secret!. This movie lacks an exclamation point in the title, and the talents of the Zucker brothers, but it manages to be pretty funny thanks to psychotic Joe Piscopo, director Amy Heckerling, and the delightfully profane Maureen Stapledon.

People found me funny once. Once.

The story starts with little Johnny Kelly the newsie throwing papers on his turf. Slimy Danny Vermin tries to steal his corner, and they get into a fight- seen by mobster Peter Boyle, who takes a liking to Johnny, and offers him a job. Johnny doesn’t want to resort to crime, but his mother needs an operation, so he shows up at Club 25, and begins his secret life as gangster Johnny Dangerously.

He keeps his life secret from his mother and little brother- who grows up to become District Attorney- going from one gag to another. There’s puns and sight gags galore, but the real fun is in the characters. Michael Keaton is unfortunately given the job as straight man for much of it, but everyone else nearly makes up for it.

Everyone remembers Moronie, the Italian mobster rival who curses with incomprehensible gibberish, you fargin’ corkasuckin’ bastige. When he gets his day in court, it spoofs the Godfather movies beautifully.

It’s fargin’ war!

Joe Piscopo is grown-up Danny Vermin, with the 88 magnum that “shoots through schools.” Piscopo had a short career as a comedy actor, but this movie and the hilariously oddball Dead Heat, where he plays a zombie cop, left an indelible mark. He was best as a character actor, and fizzled when he wanted to ride on star power. Here he’s really funny, even when he’s in the background looking fiendish.

It shoots through schools.

Danny de Vito has a small role as a crooked D.A. who tries to get Tommy to “play ball,” and there are many small roles filled memorably- Alan Hale plays the police chief, Peter Boyle gets to have fun as the mobster mentor, and Ray Walston gets a very funny cameo as the newspaper salesman who keeps getting knocked in the head with stacks of papers. He was also Mr. Hand in Heckerling’s biggest hit, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and she uses him well again here.

Marilu Henner and Griffin Dunne play the gun moll and younger brother well, but the show stealers are two old ladies- Maureen Stapledon as Ma Kelly, and Sudie Bond, who makes a big splash here in her final role. Ma Kelly has a host of health problems, my favorite being when her thyroid goes missing. Her doctor tells Johnny he needs $7500 to perform a “thyroid search.” But she’s funny in her own right, cussing up a storm at just the right moment, or saying something absurd with a profundity that brings out the laughs.

Maureen Stapledon kicks our funny bone in the balls.

Sudie Bond is the crazy cleaning lady who’s only in a few scenes, but she’s hilarious in all of them. Here’s my favorite.

It’s also hard not to laugh at the spoof of VD films when Johnny talks to his brother about sex.

Your testicles and you

The movie wastes Weird Al Yankovic’s song “This is the Life” over the boring opening credits, and has a silly title song in the middle when Marilu Henner shows up to be Johnny’s moll. But with memorable scenes like Dom DeLuise as the Pope, the Death Row walk, and Danny Vermin’s handicap parking sticker- “I am handicapped- I’m a psychotic!” it’s hard not at least be amused, nostalgia or not. It’s no Naked Gun, but this is one of the better spoofs of the 80’s. When you watch utter crap like Going Berzerk– which I really wanted to like, John Candy- you realize this may not be the cream of the crop, but it’s certainly whole milk or half-and-half.

Is this movie still funny? Yeah, and I’ma da Pope. Hey, Pope!

Beers Required to Enjoy: 1
Could it be remade today? Probably as “Gangster Movie”
Quotability Rating: Medium
Cheese Factor: High
High Point: Dirty old ladies, Joe Piscopo
Low Point: Nightclub song scene
Gratuitous Boobies: Zero

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5 thoughts on “80’s Trash of the Week: Johnny Dangerously

  1. “The lower east side. It really sucks.”I haven’t seen this movie in a while, but I really need to. The bit with Mrs. Capone borrowing a cup of bullets comes to me every time I run out of something in the kitchen.Immensely quotable, really funny. “Thyroid Search” is the best though.

  2. This article reminded me of what a pretty decent string of comedies Michael Keaton had during the ’80s – NIGHT SHIFT, GUNG HO, MR. MOM, and of course, my fave, BEETLEJUICE. I wish he would go back to doing those kinds of films again but it seems like no one is willing to give him a shot… either that or he’s not interested.

  3. I think Keaton is still rolling in Bat-money, but he made a few stinkers and probably doesn’t get offered big comic lead parts anymore. It’s too bad, he was quite the funnyman. MY LIFE was really good, too.

  4. Never saw MY LIFE as the trailers looked a little sappy but he was incredible in CLEAN & SOBER. I remember it being the first time I thought Keaton had serious dramatic acting chops.

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