November 2022

Conspiracy Theory (1997)

DIRECTOR: Richard Donner

CAST: Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, Patrick Stewart, Cylk Cozart, Steve Kahan


There’s a tantalizing glimpse of an edgier indie thriller/dark comedy somewhere within the genesis of Conspiracy Theory, but it’s buried within a “safe” thriller/mystery/romance potboiler. The result is watchable, and mildly entertaining, but it’s no more than mediocre as an action thriller, with a love story that somewhat strains credibility. It’s the kind of movie where one can see the cliched thriller/action/romance beats ticking themselves off.

Our resident conspiracy theorist is a New York City cab driver named Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson), a slightly wild-eyed individual with a motor mouth and an overactive imagination (or is it?) who relentlessly bombards his bewildered passengers with an avalanche of conspiracy theories, everything from the Vietnam War being the result of a bet between Howard Hughes and Aristotle Onassis, to Oliver Stone being a disinformation agent for the Bush White House, to The Grateful Dead being undercover British agents (Jerry Garcia has a 00 status like James Bond, apparently), to NASA plotting to assassinate the President with an earthquake. Needless to say, both the viewer and Jerry’s passengers quickly decide he’s got a screw loose, and confidence in his mental stability is no further inspired by his obsessive “crush” on Assistant DA Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts), who grudgingly tolerates his regular intrusions into her workplace because he saved her from a mugging. But like a broken clock, Jerry might occasionally be onto something. Unfortunately for him, he hits a nerve with the wrong people, and is snatched off the street (into a black van by men wearing sunglasses and trenchcoats—what else?) into a dark warehouse where—in what is actually one of the movie’s more effective sequences—he undergoes a harrowing interrogation at the hands of a smooth, sinister “psychiatrist” named Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart). And when Jerry escapes, and runs to Alice for help, she finds herself being dragged into a world where Jerry might have reason for his paranoia.

Conspiracy Theory is arguably more engaging when establishing Jerry’s oddball character and daily routine (ranting breathlessly to his hapless cab passengers) than when the generic main plot kicks in (around the point at which Patrick Stewart shows up). Actually, an edgier, more daring little indie movie might have been ballsier with the fleeting flickers of Jerry’s darker, more unstable tendencies, might have dared to leave him a paranoid wackadoodle nursing an unhealthy fixation on the perplexed woman he saved from a mugging one time. Alas, this isn’t a daring little indie movie, but a studio product by big action director Richard Donner and pre-packaged as a star vehicle for Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, so we have to veer off into safer, more conventional mainstream directions when Jerry’s life turns out to live up to the mantra that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you. Gibson reunites with his Lethal Weapon director Donner, but there’s no memorable action, just some generic scurrying around (including an in-joke bit where Jerry hides in a theater showing another Richard Donner movie, 1985’s Ladyhawke) and an equally generic ending shootout. Additionally, the central “love story” strains credibility. It’s enough of a stretch that Alice even humors Jerry this much, let alone falls in love with him (especially after he shows up in her workplace ranting incoherently and waving a gun around). Like much in Brian Helgeland’s script, Jerry and Alice feel like they “fall in love” because such plot developments are obligatory when A-listers like Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts co-star, rather than because it’s a natural progression. Some other plot elements are equally flimsy; a wheelchair-bound Jerry makes an unlikely escape from a not particularly well-guarded villain headquarters (one of those scenes where you know this is one of those movies where the good guys would be goners against bad guys who are really serious about their jobs, rather than the slacking rent-a-goons onhand here). Everything is ultimately pulled together with a murky backstory involving MK-Ultra, the real-life ultimately abandoned (at least officially) CIA program experimenting with mind control, which is mildly intriguing but underexplored.

Conspiracy Theory at least gets a little star wattage out of its cast. Mel Gibson has always had a manic, twitchy, slightly wild-eyed side even as more suave and charming characters, and he gets to really dive in and dial that up to eleven here (he also apparently improvised his rapid-fire barrage of conspiracy theorizing in the opening montage). As unhinged as Jerry sounds at times, Gibson rattles it off with a kind of manic conviction that almost makes us believe in him, even before he’s proven right about, well, at least some of what he claims. I generally don’t find Julia Roberts particularly appealing, but she’s more than capable in the role of the foil/love interest/grudging partner-in-amateur-investigating, and manages to make Alice seem reasonably smart even when her level of savvy whiplashes a bit with the contortions of the script. Patrick Stewart has limited screentime, but this is at least somewhat more novel casting than plucking a name out of the bag of usual “bad guy actors”, and lets Stewart play against type from his image as a noble and trustworthy authority figure ingrained by Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Captain Jean-Luc Picard, bringing a chilly tinge to his trademark authoritative presence. Alas, he’s underused as a generic bad guy. There’s barely anyone else in the movie; adequate support comes from Cylk Cozart as an FBI agent who starts as a pursuer and ends up an ally, and Steve Kahan (Lethal Weapon‘s Captain Murphy) as Alice’s boss, and there’s a small opening role for Alex McArthur as one of Jerry’s passengers who decides he got in the wrong cab.

Ultimately, Conspiracy Theory has its appeal; it’s smoothly diverting and mildly entertaining in a “safe”, studio-packaged kind of way, boosted by the star power of Gibson and Roberts. But it’s possible to catch glimmers of an edgier, more off-the-beaten-track movie lurking underneath somewhere before it got all wrapped up and packaged inside a conventional mainstream thriller/romance.

* * 1/2