#9 in my Ranking of John McTiernan films.
John McTiernan had just completed The Hunt for Red October, which gained plenty of accolades and quickly embraced as one of the finest submarine movies ever made. He seems to have been eager to move beyond simple action filmmaking and become serious, a trap many genre filmmakers fall into. So, he picked up a heavily sought after script filled with topical things, brought Sean Connery back (who obviously really wanted to do the film since he has an executive producer credit), and even got Lorraine Bracco fresh off of her best supporting actress nominated turn in Goodfellas. So, how did this potent mix of potential and talent come together? Not well, to be honest.
I’ve seen Medicine Man described as a romantic comedy, and, if it is that, it spends a lot of time doing other things. It’s also a medical mystery and a message movie about the rainforest at the same time. Now, can a movie grab hold of elements from several different genres and make them work together? Of course, it’s very possible and many very good films have done so. They’ve done it by actually making the individual parts good while interweaving the disparate elements well, none of which Medicine Man actually does.
Connery’s Dr. Robert Campbell has been working for a pharmaceutical company doing research deep in the Amazon rainforest for six years and popped up to ask for resources and a research assistant. In walks Bracco’s Dr. Rae Crane to act as his research assistant and to also gauge the company’s interest in any further investment in Dr. Campbell’s work. Well, Campbell has discovered a cure for cancer, but he can’t replicate it. And therein lies the two major narrative thrusts of the film. The first is the meet cute of Dr. Campbell and Dr. Crane who loath each other at the beginning and, of course, grow to love each other by the end. The second is the search for the missing peak (Peak 37) in the chromatograph’s readout by distilling a flower hidden in the forest’s canopy and making a compound from it.
The first story is predictable and kind of weird considering the rather extreme age difference between Connery and Bracco, but I won’t hold that against the movie. It helps that the relationship that develops isn’t driven by sex but by their professional attachment. Their bickering gets a little out of hand and is never quite as endearing as the writer seems to think it is. The medical mystery story is far more engaging until it telegraphs the solution a couple of times and things then get tiresome as we wait for the very smart characters to catch up with the dummy audience. And then the “save the rainforest” story is introduced very early, forgotten for most of the film, and re-introduced very late in the film, injecting a bunch of physical danger that feels out of nowhere.
Structurally, the movie’s an odd duck as well. The source of that really seems to be Dr. Campbell’s backstory. He has a dark secret that he’s trying to hide from and deal with at the same time, and it gets teased out really when he takes Dr. Crane to see the village’s medicine man who went away after Dr. Campbell cured someone of a belch using Alka-Seltzer. He’s looking for an answer that we’re already going to get the answer to (the juju in the sky flowers), but it takes an entire side trip as the pair wait for some new samples to mature three days.
There’s just so much going on the film and so little of it ends up working very well. Even the medical mystery stuff just ends up falling apart. It has so many markings of a director trying to become serious, of John McTiernan trying to make his The Color Purple or Empire of the Sun, but he chose the wrong script to do it. The failure is rather complete here, and it’s a bit depressing.