I’m not sure I really buy John McTiernan’s description of Medicine Man as “a little art movie with Sean Connery”. Sure, the Sean Connery bit (now just turned ninety, but then a fresh-faced sixty-one). But you don’t make little art movies that pay their lead $10m (and a $40m price tag – or $27m as McTiernan tells it – is only relatively little if you’re not expecting to do solid business). But yes, the movie was mis-characterised as an action movie. Even though that decision is understandable, as it doesn’t comfortably fit into any bracket.
Back in 1992, McTiernan was one of my favourite directors, up there with James Cameron and Ridley Scott. Albeit, very much on the basis of Predator and Die Hard rather than The Hunt for Red October, which I found mildly disappointing. Consequently, I made sure to catch Medicine Man on its opening week. I didn’t hate it, unlike most critics, it seems. Indeed, I found it an agreeable enough if very lightweight time passer, but it was most definitely guilty as charged of cause-based, delusionary Hollywood fare that seems to think it can make a difference from its ivory tower.
At least George Miller’s Lorenzo’s Oil – another case of an action director departing from the straight and narrow, although there one who also trained as a doctor – was based on actual case and so had plausibility on its side. Medicine Man had Sean acting as exec producer, for the first time since The Offence, which might sound like an indication of quality, given that earlier film, but his producing tag became par for the course during the rest of the ’90s, and those movies are not all good ones.
The irony being, Medicine Man is partially based on fact, even that fact has been fed through the Hollywood meatgrinder and consequently bears scant resemblance to the original. If it had used the actual story, it might have been more engaging.
Connery’s sporting a “youthful” ponytail (based on composer Jerry Goldsmith, it seems, although Highlander was his first foray into such rug-with-benefits territory). His sprightly Robert Campbell is in the Amazon rainforest researching a plant-based cure for cancer, but he’s having difficulties replicating what he believes to be positive results. Having asked for a (male) research assistant, the charming old sexist ends up with Lorrain Bracco’s loud, brassy Bronx Doctor Rae Crane. Mutual respect thaws the initially strained relations between them, naturally. Combined with “Bronx” becoming convinced Campbell’s quest is real. Meanwhile, a logging road is encroaching ever more on their jungle idyll.
Connery handpicked Bracco, understandably impressed by her performance in Goodfellas, but she’s nails-on-a-blackboard here – winning a Golden Razzie nom for her trouble. To the extent that she makes Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom seem like the easiest going of female leads. McTiernan and writers Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society) and Sally Robinson appear to think they’re presiding over an affectionate homage to the screwball era as chalk and cheese fall for each other, but there’s no whiff of that between the stars. If the picture had managed to get the central relationship right, the lack of substance elsewhere would have been much more forgivable.
At least Connery’s inimitably Connery, and it’s purely coasting on his charisma that keeps the picture watchable. He even inveigles his love of golf into the proceedings, which you have to respect (his devotion to the sanctity of character and avoiding forcing his own proclivities on Campbell).
Chemistry aside, Medicine Man’s major problem is the classic one of a tackling a big issue that hasn’t been resolved (see also Superman IV: The Quest for Peace). Since there is no cure for cancer – at least, officially – we know how Campbell’s quest is going to end, so the movie relies on a false paradigm, one that can only fail to sweep audiences along for the ride.
This leads to laborious plot loops in an attempt to sustain itself (“What don’t you understand? I found a cure for the fucking plague of the twentieth century and now I’ve lost it! Haven’t you ever lost anything Dr Bronx?”) When Campbell does get to the bottom of his dilemma, it turns out his precious flower has no “juju”; a species of rare and elusive ant fell into the mix, and so off they go together ant hunting (not having so much as smooched).
It’s a desperately thin narrative thread on which to sustain a movie, and it’s unsurprising that the picture has more juice when Campbell is confronting the loggers and his research station burns down (along with a section of prime rainforest).
I mentioned the actual story, and a suit was brought by Dr Wilburn H Ferguson – settled out of court – alleging copyright infringement based on his project Tsanza from 1973. Therein, he charts his own research into a cure for cancer. Unsurprisingly, since it’s widely and legitimately regarded as a racket, the “Cancer Establishment” refused to endorse or ratify Ferguson’s research. Which makes for a much better story, one of conflict, fighting the odds, and hope, even if one is unable to win out in the immediate moment. But let’s face it, you are not going to get a movie made by a major studio suggesting a cure for cancer is out there and that for whatever reason it is being withheld. Even if, as a bonus, it doesn’t include magic ants.
By most reports – Premiere magazine delivered something of a hit piece on the production – the shoot wasn’t a blissful one (“The food was appalling. Everybody got sick. I wasn’t sick only because I drank too much vodka. There’s no relief factor. You couldn’t swim in the water… eat in the town. The noise of insects and wildlife where I had this house was insanity – noises that were Neanderthal, primordial, noises that I’ve never heard anywhere else”). McTiernan, in contrast to Connery, professed “Personally, I enjoyed it. It’s not very often that one gets time outside and still make a living out of it”.
McTiernan seems to have been consigned to permanent directors’ jail due to his penchant for phone tapping, but back then, he was on an unstoppable run (this and Last Action Hero would put a significant dent in that). And if his sensibility isn’t really suited to the picture’s romantic tone (any more than it was the satirical/cartoonish sweep of Last Action Hero), his motives during the production at least appeared to be honourable (“It wasn’t like the movie was going to make $125 million and people were going to walk away with Academy Awards from it. The one thing it might have done was make a number of million people in the world more aware of a problem we all have to face eventually, or pay the consequences for”). By using tribal Indians who had moved to the cities, he ensured the Mexico shoot didn’t make John Boorman’s mistake with The Emerald Forest. Because otherwise “they will be forever changed by the experience of meeting a movie crew. It is, after all, only a movie and there are some moral limits”.
Medicine Man duly stresses not only the perils of deforestation but the threat to indigenous populations, most particularly from western disease* when Crane first arrives. In concert with cinematographer Donald McAlpine (Predator), the Mexican rainforest is lush and seductive, and ponytailed Goldsmith’s score soars romantically, even if the content is rather more restrained. The irony is that, for an action director, McTiernan has no idea how to make the material move. There are vistas galore, but it’s down to Connery to sustain any interest, and he can only do so much between golf swings.
*Addendum 11/08/22: Primarily, sweets, most likely.