'Medicine Man' Starring Sean Connery and Lorraine Bracco. Released by Hollywood Pictures. Rated PG-13. ** 1/2 HD: 'Medicine Man' an unfinished journey

February 08, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

I think that I shall never see a movie lovely as a tree, and "Medicine Man," set among the trees of the Amazon rain forest, confirms that suspicion.

A medical whatdunit with overtones of ecological orthodoxy and metaphorical fancy, the movie isn't bad so much as unfinished. It's as if John McTiernan, the action director now trying a grown-up project, is working from notes rather than a script. This is his "Apocalypse Now," and he still hasn't found an ending.

Like "Apocalypse," this one is about an arduous upriver journey through a merciless jungle; the difference is in the destination, which is a heart of lightness. That is, a cure for "the plague of the 20th century -- cancer."

Lorraine Bracco plays Dr. Rae Crane, a Brooklyn-bred biochemist who is a high muck-a-muck at a large pharmaceutical firm. She's venturing deep into the Amazon basin to locate the mysterious Dr. Robert Campbell, whom her company has been blithely supporting all these years in his medical peregrinations through the jungles. But he's been out of contact for three years, and funds are running low.

Campbell is, of course, played by Sean Connery, that monstrously charming Scot who could turn "King Lear" into drawing-room comedy. Here, he doesn't seem to work very hard, and he doesn't seem to care much for either Bracco or McTiernan (with whom he worked on "Hunt for Red October"), but still his buoyancy keeps the movie from slipping off into true ++ tedium.

The gimmick of the film is that Connery -- a rascally genius afloat on a sea of irony and self-pity -- has discovered a cure to the disease -- an extract from flowers growing 100 feet up -- but then lost it. Yes! Lost it! As in, oops! Thus Bracco and Connery must struggle to refind it, while two completely artificial crises are clumsily manipulated to heat up the suspense. The first is the arrival of an ecologically devastating road which will so crush the delicate environment that the magic will be gone forever; the second is the sudden appearance of a throat tumor in a small child whose life will be extinguished if they don't use the last sample of the original brew.

The medical "mystery" at the core of the story is so simple I solved it 20 minutes before the stars did, and I was even smart enough to get rejected by a medical school! The ending feels rushed and unconvincing, as if it was improvised on the last day before Connery took off for the nearest golf course. Worse, the argument concealed within the film itself is unpersuasive: In the Amazon rain for est, there may indeed lurk medical secrets yet undiscovered. But that's not why it should be saved from the strip malls and new Reisterstowns of Brazil: It should be saved because it's the Amazon rain forest and it helps the whole world breathe. To save it is to save the planet's lungs.

Additionally, the movie is in some sense constructed also as a Pat-and-Mike show of the sort Hepburn and Tracy used to put on, with the two principals spatting like cats locked in a shoe box while they grow toward respect and love. This is the kind of routine drollery that Connery can perform asleep, and he does -- asleep. Bracco is less fortunate: For the first hour, her performance is a long one-note howl of that ear-assaulting Bronx accent.

Still, the movie is far from a disgrace, which makes one wonder why the studio (Disney) was so timorous in not screening it for critics before its release. McTiernan has a genuine affection for the people who live so harmoniously within it. In fact, among the best characters in the film are its natives, who are presented as a tolerant, wise and ironic people, with a real sense of humor. The jungle -- actually a hunk of southern Mexico -- is picturesque as Eden, and Sean Connery's ponytail will remind you of the nearly extinct bushy-tailed, ring-eyed tree squirrel. It's better than a trip to the zoo on a cold day.

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