Richard Donner’s Conspiracy Theory (1997) desperately wants to be taken seriously; also to be the sort of Hollywood blockbuster that sells tickets based on slick market research and the allure of watching two undeniably handsome and very popular stars – Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts – emote in close-up. Alas, the movie’s parallel ambitions are irreconcilable and never the twain shall meet in this frequently clunky, occasionally engaging, if undeniably stylish socio-political thrill ride; scripted with mercenary precision by Brian Helgeland to sell lots of popcorn and tickets.
It isn’t a terrible movie; despite 135 minutes of exenterating cynicism, presumably concocted to raise our pulse and suspicions in tandem. We know the drill already: rogue elements in the government; omnipotent puppet masters pitilessly holding dominion over all our lives. For what purpose and to what end? Ah, now there’s the bigger question, perennially left unanswered. Conspiracy Theory’s ace in the hole is that the paranoid ramblings of one, seemingly, mentally unstable man are actually true. It’s an interesting premise, regrettably dealt a listless blow; the last quarter dedicated to a ‘thirty-minutes or your pizza’s free’ whitewash, meant to explain away all that has gone before, and, with a Hollywood-ized semi-feel good/semi-lucid finale tacked on for good box office, rather than good measure.
Conspiracy Theory begins as a taut and nervy tome to justifiable uncertainty. After all, what would any of us do if we knew of some terrible, dark truth but were powerless to impart our wisdom without the rest of the world thinking we were just plain Vanilla crazy? The chief misfire in Conspiracy Theory is it eschews this high-concept almost immediately; trading cloistered ruminations about top secret government mind-control experiments, for far more predictable, action-packed cloak and dagger; even more foreseeable as it culminates with the exoneration of our hero, brought back from the brink of death no less. The movie is salvaged from being a total waste of time by John Schwartzman’s moody cinematography. Manhattan has never looked so ominously appealing, yet spookily oppressive, all at once; Schwartzman’s superb compositions habitually anesthetizing the viewer to forgive – if never, to forget - the plot doesn’t add up and isn’t even aspiring to get any better, despite our expectations.
Perhaps, director Richard Donner desired a more quixotic programmer; set in a sort of degenerate wonderland where rogue elements become less real, though oddly, more genuine as they grow more disturbing within the movie’s profligate magic mushroom notions of almighty evil mismanaging the world to the brink of extinction. Again, this might have worked within the context of a David Lynch hallucinogenic nightmare; even David Cronenberg meets Oliver Stone. Regrettably, Donner has a more conventional outcome in mind; burying murky aspersions and ironies under a tedious extended chase movie, plumped out with a ridiculous faux romance. With the movie’s quid pro quo of checks and balances our eccentric protagonist is brought back to normalcy even as our convivial heroine is saved from the edge of her own emotional purgatory.
Mel Gibson is the right star but the wrong guy to play paranoid Manhattan cabbie, Jerry Fletcher; undeniably relishing his own dynamism as he creepily stalks Justice Department attorney, Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts); parking outside her apartment on rainy, windswept nights with a pair of binoculars aimed at her window, tuning into the same radio station so he can lip-sync the lyrics to the song she’s currently listening to, and generally making a damn nuisance of himself as he chronically asserts his constitutional rights whenever challenged by the status quo. Is Jerry Fletcher a foolish romantic or a fastidious patriot? Hmmm. Gibson is still in Mad Max mode here. There’s a certain built-in arrogance; knowing he’s cock of the walk, even if his brand of Joe Studly this time around is glazed over with a thin veneer of Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man. It doesn’t really work, precisely because Gibson is so damn attractive – physically – despite his very odd behavior. I mean, can we really believe sexy hotshot attorney, Alice Sutton would forsake a guy who looks good enough to appear in one of those Calvin Klein/Time Square underwear commercials, just because he thinks the government is tracking any citizen who buys a copy of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye?
Despite the implausible silliness, Roberts and Gibson do share a fundamentally intangible trait. They both possess star quality. This makes their combo click even as the movie fails to gel. Audiences can – and usually do – forgive a star almost anything. As such, we love Jerry Fletcher because he’s Mel Gibson – fetchingly redeemable; not the other way around. Ditto for Alice; Julia Roberts doing her usual ‘ingénue in peril’ thing oh so well and shamelessly winning us over. Roberts and Gibson engage with their presence. Is it enough? Superficially speaking – yes. You won’t be bored by Conspiracy Theory. You may even be entertained.
The set pieces are all expertly staged; as in a small unstoppable team of government agents bungee-cording down from silent black helicopters hovering - virtually undetected – only a few feet above the congestion in mid-town Manhattan, sandwiched in these narrow canyons between all the steel and concrete. Okay, it’s a bit much. So is Patrick Stewart’s particularly nasty villain, Dr. Jonas, who tries to pass off multiple stitches as a dog bite. No hydrophobia there! Conspiracy Theory settles into its kidnapping scheme - to deprogram a lethal assassin - almost by accident. But is Jerry Fletcher an experiment gone awry? Or is he an innocent man persecuted by the rogue power structure he is attempting to expose? It’s part of the mystery, I suppose. Yet, there’s no real staying power to this exercise once it’s over, chiefly because any further contemplation immediately reveal the movie’s transparent manipulations. Helgeland’s screenplay is a mess; lumbering, dead end and thoroughly misguided; the convolution tricked out in eye-catching visuals meant to do most of the heavy-lifting; style in place of substance.
Conspiracy Theory opens with a montage shot under its main title sequence, in and around Time Square; Schwartzmen’s cinematography using Broadway’s neon lights, reflected in shimmering rain puddles, to evoke a genuine sense of foreboding. We are introduced to Manhattan cab driver Jerry Fletcher, imparting various conspiracy theories to his unsuspecting patrons. Reportedly, Richard Donner asked Gibson to adlib these brief vignettes, to generate an air of spontaneity and get honest reactions from the extras. We hear familiar garble from Jerry; hidden tracking devices implanted in the U.S. currency, alien autopsies being conducted in Roswell, New Mexico, etc. et al – a deliciously bizarre cacophony of the freakish and fanciful…or so it would seem.
To say Jerry’s entire life has become an obsession with homegrown mythologies would be an understatement. He lives in a shrine dedicated to government cover-ups; publishing a bimonthly newsletter to his loyal five or six subscribers. In his spare time, Jerry also parks outside Alice Sutton’s apartment, spying on her with a pair of high-powered binoculars. Alice, of course, knows nothing of Jerry’s romantic obsession, but continues to entertain his more far-fetched conspiracy theories in her downtown office, mostly out of blind loyalty. It seems Jerry once saved Alice from a rather violent mugging. Presumably, to draw a more concrete parallel between Jerry’s odd behavior and Alice’s straight shooter, Helgeland’s screenplay gives Alice her own passion to pursue; the mystery surrounding her father’s (Bert Remsen) death – nee, murder.
Jerry sees subversive espionage taking place in the most unlikely places. The CIA is everywhere. Perplexed by a water main break after hearing about the recent drowning of a high ranking political official, Jerry follows a van of suspicious looking agents into the Justice Department; unaware he is actually the one being hunted. Jerry is knocked unconscious, awakening inside the dank corridor of an abandoned asylum hours later; Dr. Jonas waiting to exact his revenge. Bound to a wheel chair, his eyes taped open a la A Clockwork Orange; a shot of LSD and a bit of crude dunking torture and Jerry is ready to talk. Actually, he’s ready to run and does just that after taking a bite out of Jonas’ schnoz, peddling his wheelchair at a frenzied panic down the vacant corridors; using it as his only weapon against a pair of Jonas’ goons. It’s a daring escape.
Jerry arrives at Alice’s office, but is unable to coherently regale her with his harrowing experience before dramatically collapsing to the floor. Is he safe? Hardly, awakening hours later handcuffed to a gurney at the local hospital. Jerry’s ramblings cause Alice to reconsider the merits of his story – especially when she takes notice the administering psychiatrist is Dr. Jonas’ – so identified by his stitched nose. Jonas lies, claiming it is the result of a brutal dog attack. Slipping into a drug-induced slumber, Jerry pleads with Alice to switch his medical chart with one of the other patients – explaining that unless she does, he will likely be dead by morning. Still doubting Jerry’s seemingly outlandish claims, yet unable to dismiss them outright, Alice humors his request, switching the charts, presumably, to lay Jerry’s fears to rest, only to be alarmed when she arrives at the hospital the next morning and discovers the other patient has ‘died’ overnight under very dubious circumstances.
Still very much alive and eager to escape, Jerry smears his face with breakfast oatmeal and fakes a heart attack; knocking out the attending orderlies before making a break in his hospital gown. In this harrowing chase, Jerry eludes Jonas and the authorities by leaping into a laundry disposal shut, aided by Alice, who feigns ignorance over his whereabouts. It is now quite obvious to Alice the men entrusted with Jerry’s care are not what they seem. Returning to Jerry’s ward to divert suspicion over her complicity in his escape, Alice is introduced to FBI agent Lowry (Cylk Cozart). However, their casual examination of Jerry’s personal effects is interrupted by the CIA, who swarm the room, confiscating everything. Lowry acknowledges something highly irregular is going on. However, Alice refuses to work with Lowry on the case. After all, who can she trust?
Discovering Jerry hiding in the backseat of her car, Alice agrees to take him back to her apartment. The pair is tailed by Lowry. Rather than engage in yet another daring chase, Alice wisely pulls over and confronts Lowry. He benignly agrees to keep his distance. Alice takes Jerry back to his apartment to change clothes. But while there, Alice begins to doubt Jerry once again. Now, a SWAT team launches into a full-on assault, riddling the apartment with bullets and tear gas. Jerry triggers a homemade booby-trap; setting his entire life’s work ablaze and pushing Alice through a secret passage. Before their escape, Alice takes notice of a collage on the wall; a photo of her equestrian days prominently featured; also, the smoke stacks of a nearby factory facing the Hudson River.
Reluctantly, Alice takes Jerry to her apartment where he inadvertently reveals he has been spying on her through the window for some time. Alice is, understandably, disturbed by this revelation; also because Jerry seems to know far too much about her late father. She kicks him out of her apartment. Realizing the place is under surveillance, Jerry lures one of the federal agents away from the car, confronting Lowry at gunpoint. A short while later, Jerry enters a local booksellers and buys a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. The electronic record of this purchase alerts the FBI to his location; operatives rappelling from black helicopters, pursuing Jerry into the Orpheum Theater. Once again, Jerry narrowly escapes, this time by inciting panic with a false fire alarm, sending the packed house scrambling for the exits.
Meanwhile, Alice discovers all – except one – of the people on Jerry’s mailing list of subscribers have recently ‘died’. Jerry lures Alice from the office with a pizza. Not knowing who to trust, Alice agrees to have the Feds plant a homing device in the cardboard box before allowing Alice to meet Jerry outside. Alice is understandably torn in her loyalties. At this point in the screenplay, it seems highly plausible that Jerry really is a wing nut about to go postal. Nevertheless, Alice desperately wants to believe in Jerry. Unfortunately, some cleverly planted evidence suggests he may have been the assassin who actually murdered her father. Disarming the FBI’s operatives one by one, Jerry confesses his love to Alice – also that he was part of a terrible mind-warping experiment, designed to transform him into a cold-blooded assassin. Afterward, Jerry flees to the subway, once again, narrowly escape incarceration.
Now, Alice tracks down the only surviving subscriber to Jerry’s newsletter; unnerved when she realizes it is Jonas. He perpetuates the lie. Jerry is the brainwashed assassin who murdered her father. Faced with what appears to be the heartbreaking reality, Alice agrees to help Jonas and his agents recapture Jerry. Jerry and Alice now arrive at the Connecticut farm once owned by Alice’s father. She leaves her cell phone on so the agents can track them. But their arrival to the farm jogs Jerry’s memory. Unrepentantly, he confesses he was programmed by Jonas to kill Alice’s father – a judge – because he had unearthed Jonas’ brainwashing program. However, unable to complete his mission, Jerry instead vowed to the judge to keep his daughter safe. It all makes sense now. Jerry is Alice’s protector. Realizing she has been misled by the Feds, Alice apologizes to Jerry for her doubts. But it’s too late. Jonas and his agents arrive, recapturing Jerry, while Alice narrowly dodges a sniper’s bullet.
Back at the abandoned factory, Jonas proceeds to torture Jerry for more information. Alice returns to the office she once worked at, only to discover all traces of the organization have been removed from the building. It’s as though they never existed. With nowhere left to turn, Alice forces Lowry at gunpoint to admit he is not FBI but rather working for a secret agency that keeps watch over the other ‘legitimate’ branches of the bureau; a sort of watchdog’s watchdog who has been using Jerry to hunt down Jonas.
Remembering the smokestacks from Jerry’s wall mural, Alice acts on a hunch and discovers an asylum located next door. She forces one of the unsuspecting attendants to lead her to its condemned wing after hearing echoes of Jerry’s voice through the heating grate. Alice then finds Jerry bound inside one of the rooms and frees him from his restraints. The scene erupts in a hailstorm of gunfire as Lowry’s agents engage Jonas’ men. Jonas knocks Alice unconscious and Jerry valiantly rushes to her aid, attempting to drown Jonas. Instead, Jonas fires a bullet into Jerry from a concealed gun. In response, Alice shoots Jonas dead, watching helplessly as Jerry is carted off by ambulance.
Moments before his departure, Alice confesses to Jerry that she loves him too. His faith in humanity restored, Jerry, presumably, flat lines. Time passes. Alice visits Jerry’s grave, returning a special pin he once gave her as a symbol of his love for her. But wait. There’s more. Jerry did not die, but has been forced into a sort of witness protection program. Lowry explains that so long as everyone believes Jerry is dead, Alice will be safe. The movie ends with Lowry driving Jerry past the judge’s stud farm, the pair observing Alice, who has set aside her fears and begun to ride horses once again. Jerry quietly watches with a distinct note of personal satisfaction as Alice races on her steed toward the horizon.
Conspiracy Theory is awash and adrift in too many ‘perfectly concocted’ scenarios to make it a real nail-biter. Yes, there is plenty of action. And yes, there are some expertly staged ‘fight’ sequences to get the adrenaline pumping. But fast action and slick cinematography aside, the story implodes under the weight of its own absurdity. The basic plot – one assassin who refuses to kill his assigned target, currently being hunted down by the forces who pre-programmed his killer instincts – isn’t edgy enough to sustain all this chasing about. Brainwashing is a tortuous and debilitating experience. Conspiracy Theory just makes it appear as though it might be inconvenient to one’s pursuit of true love and happiness.
Beneath his quirky exterior, Mel Gibson’s Jerry is much too congenial and introspective. Apart from Jonas’ torture methods, and a few mindless flashbacks, incorporating inserts from the classic ‘Looney Tunes’ ‘Chow Hound’ – a cartoon short in which a muscular Bulldog named Butch is force-fed gravy by Timothy, the alley cat – Jerry never seems to suffer any Manchurian Candidate-styled aftereffects from having nasty thoughts forcibly implanted into his brain. It seems he’s just too busy being chivalrous and peculiar to care. So too does Julia Robert’s Alice never entirely decide whether she’s tough as nails or merely winsome with a Teflon-coated exterior and a Kevlar-reinforced breastplate. Despite these inconsistencies in their characters, Roberts and Gibson do have genuine on-screen chemistry. This is a definite plus and, arguably, the movie’s only salvation.
The finale to Conspiracy Theory is haplessly stitched together; bringing contrived closure to a story that otherwise should have none; the telepathic understanding between these two ‘soul mates’ separated by circumstance and necessity is meant to clinch the proverbial ‘feel good’ for the audience. But Conspiracy Theory doesn’t need this false love story to work. Arguably, it undermines the whole show. What’s left is a fairly pedestrian affair – everyone running around in the dark, while the characters are very much kept in the dark.
As I stated before, Conspiracy Theory is not a terrible movie, particularly if one sets aside any level of expectation for a really good thriller and simply runs with the premise this movie is a roller coaster ride, made with undeniable technical competency. Donner moves us along at a frenetic pace, and, with good solid chemistry between the two stars. For most, this will be enough to rate Conspiracy Theory as a winner. I confess, as a thriller it left me wanting. And yet, somehow, I was also marginally entertained by it just the same. Go figure.
There is absolutely nothing to figure about Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray. It is stunning; proof positive that when the studio wants to put their best foot forward in 1080p they are more than capable of achieving fantastically impressive results. I’ll confess; I wasn’t certain this was possible any longer; what with so many misfires and substandard hi-def offers in more recent years (mastering issues on the Blu-rays of Tequila Sunrise 1988, Driving Miss Daisy 1989, and The Bonfire of the Vanities 1990). But Conspiracy Theory looks fabulous and flawless in hi-def. Prepare to be astonished.
Cinematographer John Schwartzman has given high-contrast sheen to these Manhattan exteriors, perfectly replicated herein. The ‘Wow’ factor is in evidence throughout. You are going to be VERY impressed by the amount of subtle detail, the exquisite razor-sharpness, pitch perfect contrast and eye-popping colors. Flesh tones are naturalistic and there are NO age-related artifacts and NO mastering issues either. In short, this is a reference quality offering from WB. The 5.1 DTS is another reason to celebrate; a magnificent integration of music, dialogue and effects: a total immersion of the senses.
It’s a genuine pity Warner did not give us any extra features. But hey, we’re not going to poo-poo it any further. My only note of encouragement for this studio will be this: please give us some of your more competently made thrillers in the same reference quality. My vote herein would be for Reversal of Fortune (1990) and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) to start. Otherwise, Conspiracy Theory on Blu-ray comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)