Opened: August 8, 1997 | Rated: R
"Conspiracy Theory" plays like a sequel to "The Manchurian Candidate," but without any of the ironic political and sociological insight.
Both films star aging heartthrobs -- Frank Sinatra in "Candidate" and Mel Gibson in "Conspiracy" -- as war veterans of questionable sanity, brainwashed by intelligence agencies to be unwitting assassins.
"Candidate" cashed in on the Red Scare and McCarthyism, "Conspiracy" gorges on government cover-ups and Big Brother fears. Both depend on the public's learned distrust of those in power for their suspense.
But while "Candidate," made in 1962 by John Frankenheimer, was observant and visionary, frightening and sarcastic, "Conspiracy" is only occasionally suspenseful and is burdened by it's design-by-committee, machine-written script.
Gibson plays Jerry Fletcher, a skittish Manhattan cabbie who is also a conspiracy nut. He's sure there are tracking devices in the new $100 bills and insists that paranoid right-wing militias are, in reality, the U.N. troops they pretend to fear.
He keeps hundreds of suspicious news clippings filed away in his booby-trapped apartment and inflicts his opinions on anyone who will listen. But when one of his theories turns out to be right, he becomes the hunted in an intelligence underworld game of cat and mouse.
Fletcher spends the bulk of the picture running from the CIA, the FBI and an army of mysterious men silent black helicopters (a conspiracy aficionado favorite). He is captured and escapes a few times, and in one mild but masterfully disorienting scene is interrogated by one Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart, really enjoying his turn as a baddie), ostensibly a CIA spook.
Injected with some kind of serum, bound to a wheelchair and his eyes taped open, Jerry is asked, "What do you know?" He can't answer -- he doesn't know which of his wild theories turned out to be true.
As the serum takes effect, director Richard Donner effectively invites the audience inside Jerry's head with hallucinogenic and surrealistic images flashing over fish-eye shots of his captors. It is the only scene in the film that feels like a departure from the committee script.
The story has the compound plot twist and manifold layers a good conspiracy should. It has the obligatory darkness and the oddball details (apparently every secretly conditioned assassin carries on him a copy of "Catcher in the Rye").
But "Conspiracy Theory" never feels truly ominous or even thrilling, in large part because the producers weren't content with conspiracy alone and decided they needed a love interest.
Enter Julia Roberts as Alice Sutton, a Justice Department investigator who is beholden to Jerry for saving her from a mugger. Out of a feeling of obligation she tolerates his hounding suggestions that she investigate various secret plots and cover-ups.
She becomes embroiled in the conspiracy when Jerry escapes from Dr. Jonas and shows up at her office bleeding and bruised. Through the course of the film she discovers that he may know something about the assassination of her father, a district court judge who was killed just before he was to re-open a suspiciously hushed-up case.
While this adds another element of intrigue, Jerry's crush on Alice quickly becomes an ill-advised source of humor, with Gibson trying to exercise his glib charm while still seeming somewhat insane. Is it endearing for a lunatic New York cabbie to be stalking a pretty, young professional? Even if the lunatic is Mel Gibson, I don't think so.
Director Donner damages what little tension the movie has by letting Gibson plays Jerry's psychoses for laughs (he has a combination lock on the coffee in his padlocked refrigerator), and Gibson's history of zany characters already makes it hard to take him seriously as a genuine nut.
"Conspiracy Theory" does gain momentum in the last half hour, but the conclusion is far too tidy. Ignoring the depth of corruption harped on throughout the movie, it inexplicably implies all danger has passed so the audience can exit with a smile.