Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Director Report Card: John McTiernan (1992)

5. Medicine Man

You’d think that after the tough time the cast and crew had making “Predator,” John McTiernan would not be eager to return to the jungle. Instead, McTiernan re-teamed with Sean Connery to make “Medicine Man.” The script, from the screenwriter of “Dead Poet’s Society” and “What About Bob?,” was purchased for three million dollars, a hefty sum at the time. What attracted McTiernan to the material, I don’t know. A slightly comedic drama, it features few of the elements you usually associated with the director. Though a decent money-maker at the box office, “Medicine Man” received lousy reviews.

Years ago, chemist Robert Campbell disappeared into the Amazon rain forest, searching for further miracle cures. Rae Crane, a chemist working for the same company, is sent into the jungle to find him. At first, the two don’t agree on much. Campbell is regarded as a shaman, a medicine man, by the local tribe he’s living among. Soon, Crane realizes that Campbell has discovered a cure for cancer. After finding the formula, he has since lost it. The two work together, slowly developing romantic feelings for one another, trying to recreate the miracle cure and prevent the forest from being encroached upon by modern society.

Once again, I find myself discussing the early nineties mania for saving the rain forest. Why were we so obsessed with protecting South American eco-systems in the early part of that decade? This was after the collapse of the Soviet Union but before Middle Eastern extremists emerged as our new cultural boogeymen. Likewise, a new awareness of other countries’ strifes became apparent to us. During that time, we had to occupy ourselves with something. Why not save a really pretty, interesting part of the world? “Medicine Man” is more subtle than most of the pro-rain forest propaganda of the time. It’s more occupied with the wonder of the location. Inevitably, how at risk the jungle is comes up, easily ear-marking it as part of the genre.

As a star vehicle for Sean Connery, “Medicine Man” breaks little new ground. Robert Campbell is introduced drunk, wearing a toucan mask on his head. Campbell is something of an outsider, willingly exiling himself from modern society. He gets a tragic backstory, including a dead wife. At the same time, Campbell is always the smartest person in the room. Connery gets show off his wit and toughness, living easily in the exotic location and belittling others about it. Connery’s effortless charm counts for a lot. However, Sir Sean doesn’t stretch his abilities and the script doesn’t give him much oppretunity to do so.

When “Medicine Man” was released, much of the criticism at the time was directed at Lorraine Bracco. Coming off a supporting Oscar nomination for “GoodFellas,” Bracco was seen as stepping outside her boundaries. At first, Bracco is fine in the film. She’s reasonably tough, returning everything Connery gives her in turn. As the film progresses, an embarrassing side emerges to the character. Bracco yells at a snake in her hut. After drinking a natural caffeine-filled liquid, Bracco runs through the mountains, yelling and goofing off. Afterwards, her character increasingly becomes the butt of the movie’s jokes. She spends the last third with a blue line drawn on her face. She is grossed out by an alcohol partially made from human saliva. Whether this is the result of the script or Bracco’s performance is hard to determine. Either way, it has a negative affect on the movie.

I was really hoping “Medicine Man” wasn’t going to become a romance. Crane and Campbell work better as friends. Primarily, this is because Connery and Bracco have zero romantic chemistry. When researching or trading verbal barbs, the two work together fine. When starring longingly into each other eyes, it falls apart. The romantic angle emerges suddenly, when Connery begins describing a drawing he’s made of Bracco. The two locking lips in the final reel does not feel earned. The love story almost feels like the result of a re-write, wedged in to please some uneasy test audience.

As a boy, “Medicine Man” was one of my Mom’s favorite movies. When asked about this, she admitted this had little to do with the film’s story or characters. Mostly, she just thought the scenery was really pretty. That much certainly is true. Despite being set in the Amazon rain forest, the film was actually shot in Mexico. A key moment has the two main characters standing atop a hill, overlooking the jungle and mountain peaks in the distance. Another scene is set in the tree tops, the characters moving along the gorgeous, green foliage. If one of “Medicine Man’s” goal was to get viewers to care about the rain forest, it succeed just by showing how beautiful a location it is.

Not being an action film, there’s not many opportunities for John McTiernan to show off his visual trademarks in “Medicine Man.” He still manages to squeeze in some fluid, dolly shots. While Campbell and Crane explore the tree tops on zip lines, McTiernan’s camera spirals around beneath them. It’s a nice shot, in addition to establishing the scope of the scene. Shortly afterwards, the two sliding down a tree is dissolved against blips on a computer screen. While this stuff works, later moments make the odd stylistic decision to strip the audio away. This is more melodramatic than anything else and not McTiernan’s best decision.

“Medicine Man” is at least partially a comedy. Some of these moments are better than others. Connery golfs inside the jungle, the tribesman retrieving the missing balls. While discussing Crane off-screen, another set of natives tease Campbell about his growing attraction to the woman. Some of the dialogue between Connery and Bracco amuses. An early exchange involving a guinea pig is cute. A reoccurring gag about cigarettes pays off nicely at the end. Probably the funniest moment in the film involves Campbell dueling with the tribe’s original medicine man. A haphazard duel results, the two men whacking each other with sticks. Every time Rae distracts him, he suffers a crack against the body or a thump on the foot. These aren’t belly laugh producing moments, exactly. Yet they mildly amuse.

The comedy is uneven and some gags are too broad. However, “Medicine Man” is even more inconsistent as a drama. A subplot, concerning a corporation building a road through the jungle, is introduced far too late into the film. That story line pays off in a hopelessly overwrought scene. Characters tumble around in slow motion, fist fighting while a fire blazes behind him. Though undeniably dramatically shot, the scene reaches for emotion the movie doesn’t earn. Scene set the next morning, of the characters digging through the smoking wreckage, would work better if the audience was more invested in the cast.

I can’t decide if “Medicine Man” would have been better or worst had it embraced its destiny as a Serious Movie. Responsible management of the rain forest’s resources is an important message to send. “Medicine Man” approaches this topic in a manner that’s a little too touchy-feely. The natural resources of the jungle are treated as almost magical. It literally “cures cancer,” an unlikely proposition. The climatic reveal of the cure’s secret ingredient is hackneyed, a far too easy resolution to what would surely be a complicated solution. If you squint, you could see “Medicine Man” making a statement about man responsibly co-exisitng with nature or corporations’ exploitation of the Earth’s wonder. Neither are expanded into defined points though.

Critics didn’t have too many positive things to say about “Medicine Man.” However, one aspect was frequently singled out. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is quite good. Goldsmith mixes some very pretty instrumental styles. Whimsical horns and strings provide a sense of wonder to the appropriate moments. The use of sparse woodwind or drums suggests the exotic location without overdoing it. The more mysterious moments add a dramatic electronic beat, creating a nice sense of mystery. Soft, inspiring, and melodic, Goldsmith’s score probably deserves a more consistent movie.

”Medicine Man” is essentially built around two performances, as they’re few characters in the film besides Connery and Bracco. Ultimately, the characters’ dynamic is not enough to sustain an entire feature. McTiernan wanting to step outside the action movies he had already become associated with was admirable. “Medicine Man” is a good looking film, with a nice soundtrack, and a handful of effective moments. An uneven script and a mismatched leading lady keeps it from rising above. [Grade: C+]


Sean Catlett said...

I really struggled with that use of 'negative affect.'

Bonehead XL said...

Wait, are you objecting to my grammar or Lorraine Bracco? Is it both? It's okay if it's both.

Sean Catlett said...

Grammar. But I looked it up and I think it's correct.

It's been so long since I've seen this, I forgot she was in it.