Leave the ears to Mike Tyson. As Jerry Fletcher, a sweet loon of a cabby with a haunted past, Mel Gibson sinks his teeth into the schnoz of his CIA nemesis Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart). Conspiracy Theory delivers the jokey action you’d expect from Gibson, director Richard Donner and producer Joel Silver, the trio behind the trio of Lethal Weapon hits. The boys also deliver something unexpected: ambition. Reflecting Gibson’s laudably risky performance, Brian Helgeland’s script tackles the evils of government mind control. Political paranoia put the kick in such landmark thrillers as John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View and Brian DePalma’s Blow Out. Conspiracy Theory dares to play in that league; too bad it’s not for the long haul. Donner, a slick packager, reverts to form: He shrinks from the toxic America uncovered by Jerry and Alice Sutton, a Justice Department lawyer played by Julia Roberts, and the film loses the courage to sustain its dark convictions.
Hell of a kickoff, though. Jerry drives his passengers nuts with his conspiracy theories; he is convinced that everything from fluoride to the cinema of Oliver Stone is a government plot to rot our brains. (Actually, I’m with Jerry on that last one.) In a tenement flat walled up like a bunker with piles of press clippings and a padlocked fridge, Jerry prints a newsletter that has only five subscribers. In his cab, he spins by Alice’s apartment to sneak a peek at his dream babe working out on a StairMaster. “I love her so bad,” he tells a passenger. “She wrecks me.”
Odd romance, huh? You bet. Alice hardly knows Jerry, except as a pest in her office. On his last visit, he claimed that NASA had plans to kill the president with an earthquake. Gibson lays on enough manic twitches and eye rolling to make any sane person call security. Alice knows he’s probably crazy, but she sees something in Jerry. It’s the same thing that Faye Dunaway and the armed Robert Redford saw in each other in Three Days of the Condor — they’re stars, damn it.
Credit Gibson and Roberts for playing the story as if it meant something besides a fat paycheck — hers was $11 million; his was $20 million. Alice’s father, a respected judge, has been murdered, and Alice has devoted herself to finding his real killer — not the patsy the spooks have set up. Jerry covers his walls with clips about the case and photos of Alice on horseback. Is he a creep? Is she deluded? A hint comes when Jerry is kidnapped by Jonas, a CIA shrink who drugs him, holds his eyes open with transparent tape and demands answers about a violent past that Jerry still can’t remember. Stewart takes devilish fun in playing Laurence Olivier’s sadist to Gibson’s victimized Dustin Hoffman in a scene that shamelessly apes Marathon Man.
Is it safe to give away more of the plot? Not really, except to say that Jerry didn’t always drive a cab and that Conspiracy Theory borrows from films as diverse as The 39 Steps and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Alice even makes a reference to The Manchurian Candidate in a chat with Jonas about recruited assassins. Jonas is insulted by the allusion.
The doc should be flattered. So should Donner. Watch these films and you’ll learn that the best thrillers don’t deflate characters with clichTs, run away from the issues they raise and cover plot holes with tired jokes (eating oatmeal, Jerry cracks, “This is a grueling experience”) and empty spectacle (a SWAT team descends from the sky to apprehend Jerry at a bookstore). In Gibson’s Ransom, he played an arrogant shit with no apologies. In Conspiracy Theory, the strong impact that Gibson makes as damaged goods is diluted by selling Jerry as cute and redeemable. Instead of a scalding brew of mirth and malice, served black, Donner settles up a tepid latte, decaf. What a shame — Conspiracy Theory could have been a contender.