REVIEW: Medicine Man (1992)

medicineman_posterIt is a given that, as time moves on, history remembers the best films and – to a lesser extent – the worst, but that the average or ordinary ones are gradually sidelined and forgotten by audiences at large. John McTiernan’s 1992 drama Medicine Man, which opened to middling reviews and rapidly dropped out of cinemas, is a classic example of this. In my own country of Australia, it has never been released onto DVD or bluray – effectively putting it out of the public eye for the past 20 years. Now available again via Disney+, it seemed an appropriate time to revisit and re-evaluate this half-forgotten film.

Dr Rae Crane (Lorraine Bracco) is dispatched by her pharmaceutical employer to the Amazon rainforest to meet and assess the work of elusive and difficult biochemist Robert Campbell (Sean Connery), who has been impossible to contact since his wife and former research partner left him. She finds Campbell close to one of the most important medical discoveries of the century – a discovery under threat from a road construction that is slashing and burning its way through the jungle.

John McTiernan is rightfully regarded as one of the 1980s’ finest action filmmakers, thanks to his one-two punch of Predator (1987) and Die Hard (1988). While he continued to direct a string of well-made, sometimes successful pictures including The Hunt for Red October (1990), Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995), and The 13th Warrior (1999). Legal problems resulted in the 2003 thriller Basic becoming his final feature to date; these days he seemed entirely persona non grata in Hollywood circles.

Medicine Man exists as the odd-one-out in McTiernan’s career. His other 10 features are action films, or thrillers and capers – even a horror film – but Medicine Man is a straightforward drama. Action is limited, and despite the lush, green scenery (set in the Amazon but filmed in Mexico) the film is more about story and dialogue than visual splendour. Given McTiernan’s reputation prior to its release, and an action-centric marketing campaign to capitalised upon it, it is perhaps not a surprise that audiences were lukewarm on the film and its box office returns were modest.

Nearly three decades on, and Medicine Man actually marks itself out as rather mediocre: deserving of its middling reputation in some ways, perhaps not justifying in others. The basic narrative is perfectly fine: a doctor may have found a cure for cancer, but cannot isolate it in the environment – and that same environment is about to be devastated by deforestation. It is a timely concept, and reasonably well grounded, and it is depressing to note it still holds immense relevance today. The film is also reasonably respectful of indigenous Brazilian people and their culture, although in keeping with the Mexican shoot it seems most tribespeople have been cast with Mexican actors.

Sean Connery plays a standard 1990s variation of his on-screen persona: old enough to be crotchety, yet so warped by his ‘sexiest man’ reputation that he is still a valid romantic lead. As with many films of the period, he plays the latter member of a May-to-December romance, which thankfully is kept mostly sidelined for the bulk of the film.

Lorraine Bracco is entirely let down by a screenplay that has her character relegated to act unwisely, need support that she should not logically require, and act foolishly when intoxicated by local cures for apparent comedic effect. Critics of the time were brutal about her performance, but I swear it is not Bracco’s fault: screenwriters Tom Schulman and Sally Robinson needed to give her a proper character, and McTiernan should have intervened during production to bring her back some sense of dignity. It is sadly possible that Rae “Bronx” Crane was deliberately sabotaged to make her male co-star seen even more bold and heroic; if so it is a deep shame, because she drags down an otherwise amiable and diverting film.

One is immediately put in mind of lounge singer Willie Scott in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), a notorious case in which a talented actor – in this case Kate Capshaw – was saddled with an objectionably awful role to be tossed around the film as a shrieking damsel-in-distress. In both cases it weakens the surrounding film. It is a common enough phenomenon that we really need a name to more easily address it: one could simply say Lorraine Bracco has been resoundingly Capshawed.

In theory, the ability of streaming services to make a broader range of ordinary and passed-over features available to audiences is a good thing. Medicine Man is, all in all, a perfectly adequate film – not good enough to go actively searching for, but decent enough to watch through at least once to pass the time. It did make me wish McTiernan could get out of director prison to make features again, and it did make me terribly sorry for Bracco.

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