September 20, 2009

Review of Medicine Man

Medicine Man is a 1992 Native-themed film starring Sean Connery. Here's a synopsis from a negative review:

Medicine ManIn "Medicine Man" he's an eccentric scientist who has been settled deep in the Amazon rain forest for so long, he has virtually become one of the Indians. In fact, he is their medicine man, having inadvertently received the title.

Wearing a pony tail and mustering up all his big-screen manly swagger (which is considerable), Connery plays a brilliant researcher who has discovered a cure for cancer—but he can't seem to duplicate his initial success.

It all hangs on a rare variety of flora that grows high in the trees, which are, of course, being cut down to pave the way for roads.

Enter Lorraine Bracco, a fellow scientist assigned to evaluate Connery's work for the pharmaceutical company that is funding him. They clash at first, but eventually come to terms, and she tries to help him come up with that winning combination once more, before they run out of rain forest.
Some mostly positive reviews:

Medicine ManIn a change of pace from his usual action film fare, the skilled work of director John McTiernan brings emotional depth to what would otherwise be just another pro-environmental propaganda film. Connery, who had starred in McTiernan's crowd-pleasing 1989 film The Hunt for Red October, gives a convincing performance as the determined and complex researcher haunted by mistakes of the past. Bracco's character adds the realistic humor of the city scientist adjusting to Spartan life in the trees, but she does so with both strength and dignity. The constant bickering of two equally obstinate scientists gives a mild "honeymooners in the jungle" quality. Filmed in the Mexican rain forest, the canopy is captured in breathtaking cinematography. --Lucinda Ramsey, All Movie Guide

John McTiernan's enviro-conscious suspense thriller is a departure from the director's normal blood-and-guts fare. Sean Connery and Lorraine Bracco entertain with their odd-couple exchanges amid a lively rain forest backdrop similar to McTiernan's earlier work in Predator. There is an interesting strain of environmental backlash, as slash-and-burn big business and the bulldozers of progress cost the world a cure for "the plague of the 20th century." Also, Connery's character has an almost Kurtz-like quality, a renegade in a lonely jungle far away from the tides of civilization, but the film simply is too intellectually flat to push the Heart of Darkness comparison any further. The congruent story lines and slow, methodical pace of the film are the strong points here; overall, the film's pseudo-mysticism does not detract from its quiet charm. --Mike DiBella, All Movie Guide
And more mostly negative reviews:

Medicine Man (1992)From the moment she shows up, though, Bracco seems to be acting in another movie (or, perhaps, a high school play). As Crane, she speaks in an overbearing Bronx whine and yells out each wisecrack with the exact same tone and emphasis; she might be doing an impression of Julie Kavner on Rhoda. There must be plenty of good scientists with thick New York accents, but Bracco seems to have heard the word "Bronx" and thought "coarse and dumb." For most of the movie, she's like a trumpet blaring in your ear.

Medicine Man is framed as an African Queen/Romancing the Stone-style screwball romance, with Connery as the selfish manly man who needs to be softened and Bracco as the too-civilized-for-her-own-good urban dweller who learns to let her hair down. Despite her high-decibel flailing about, Bracco has an earthy sexual vibrance, and on this level she and Connery connect. Connery, who looks good in his salt-and-pepper ponytail, doesn't do much he hasn't done before, but his fierce, playful virility is as winning as ever. It's a nice touch, too, to have the romance remain platonic.
Medicine Man (1992)"Medicine Man" transports a lot of Hollywood-style hot air to the remote jungle outpost where Dr. Campbell has accidentally stumbled upon a cancer-reversing formula. Unfortunately, he cannot duplicate that formula at will. And even more unfortunately, he now has the newly arrived Dr. Crane breathing down his neck and telling him his research is "major league." Dispatched by the pharmaceutical company sponsoring this research project, the Bronx-accented Dr. Crane is meant to seem charmingly out of place, but her charm is as elusive as the magical elixir. She complains constantly and speaks in all-too-fluent screenwriterese. (Upon arriving in the jungle: "I'm tired! I'm hungry! And I've been in these clothes for more than one dance.")

The screenplay, by Tom Schulman ("Dead Poets Society," "What About Bob?") and Sally Robinson, must have seemed a real find. After all, it combines concern for the rain forest, the aformentioned cancer cure and the kind of mock-contentious repartee that reminds some people of Tracy and Hepburn, if their memories are sufficiently short. But in this case the antagonism is as annoying as it is false, with the singsong rhythms of the most synthetic Moviespeak. "I'm not a girl!" shouts Dr. Crane when obstreperous, sexist Dr. Campbell (a trying character even for an actor as mistake-proof as Mr. Connery) calls her one. "The hell you're not!" he answers. "I'm your research assistant!" she yells back. "The hell you are!" says he.
Rob's review

I liked Medicine Man better than most of the reviewers did. But yes, it's far from perfect. Let's note some of the flaws first:

  • Every reviewer homed in on Bracco's performance, and it's probably the worst aspect of Medicine Man. She was miscast for the part or she misplayed it. She doesn't ruin the movie, but she ruins any chance of viewers taking it as a serious work of art.

    The wisecracking repartee veers from clever to forced. If someone else were delivering Crane's lines, I think the dialogue would sound pretty good. As it is, it's kind of a wash.

  • Medicine Man is similar to a Disney-style romp, with happy-go-lucky Natives, people swinging through trees, and sprightly music. Nothing too serious happens until a boy gets sick, and that's mostly off-screen. If it weren't for the half-naked bodies and the occasional profanity, it could be a G-rated adventure from two or three decades earlier--an updated and transplanted Daktari.

    Other reviewers seemed to enjoy the antics, but I think they went on too long. With Crane shrieking much of the time, they didn't advance the characterization.

  • The science is somewhat hard to follow and swallow. What exactly is the "baseline" computer reading? Why is Campbell sure a flower holds a cancer-curing compound if he extracted it only once and can't duplicate the process? How does the old medicine man know whether the flower can cure cancer when no one in the village gets the disease?

    And cancer is a group of related diseases, I believe, not a single disease. It's impossible to take the idea of a drug that cures every kind of cancer, in just a few hours, seriously. You know such a drug doesn't exist, so the question is how this "miracle" will fail to become a reality.

  • The movie's pace is too slow except for the ending, which is too rushed. Campbell and Crane have only 24 hours to discover the compound's secret before the bulldozers roll in. Through a sheer fluke, they discover it just as the machinery arrives.

  • Naturally, the story is all about the two white people and their relationship. Although Medicine Man gives plenty of screen time to the tribe as a whole, the Natives have only a few secondary roles as individuals.

  • One egregious mistake struck me: Campbell refers to the old medicine man's abilities as "juju," a West African term. You could chalk this up to the white man's Eurocentric insensitivity. But when Campbell converses with the medicine man in his native language, the Indian also refers to "juju." No way is "juju" a word in an Amazon Indian language.

  • On the bright side...

    There's a lot to like about Medicine Man. Much of it has to do with its portrayal of the Natives and the white man living with them. For instance:

  • Campbell is probably the most sensitive researcher ever to cohabit with Amazon Indians. When Crane arrives, he orders her to wear a mask so she won't spread her germs. He examines her and checks her vaccination record to make sure she can't infect anyone.

  • Campbell has "gone Native" in the best possible way. He speaks the Native language fluently. He participates in the Native ceremonies. He prefers candy-coated ants to ice cream.

    What he hasn't done is equally significant. He hasn't contaminated the Native culture--introduced outside ideas or innovations--in any discernible way. He hasn't taken a Native woman or set himself up as a tribal leader. Even though he replaced the tribe's medicine man by curing someone with Alka Seltzer, he doesn't claim his medicine is superior to theirs.

  • Campbell has taught Palala, his Native assistant, English. Palala understands and speaks it well enough to joke about Crane being smart because she doesn't like Campbell.

  • Medicine Man is set in 1990 or thereabouts and the Natives seem well aware of the modern world, though they don't participate in it. They're not afraid of technology such as computers and earthmovers and don't talk about it superstitiously.

  • When Campbell and Crane want to test hundreds of plant samples, they enlist the Natives to help prepare the samples. In other words, they treat the Natives as smart and capable enough to participate in a scientific process.

  • When the boy gets sick, Campbell goes to the old medicine man to learn about the flowers. He engages in a mock battle to apologize to the old man for taking his place. In short, the Westerners value the Native for his knowledge.

  • The movie used Brazilian Indians to play most of the Natives and they look the part. No obvious Anglo or Latino wannabes here.

  • Medicine Man's themes are obvious: "Natives live in harmony with nature." "The Amazon is worth preserving for its biodiversity." "Progress is destroying the rainforest." But it never states them explicitly. It's not subtle, but I wouldn't say it's heavy-handed either.

  • There are several rainstorms--a common occurrence you almost never see in jungle-based movies.

  • All in all, I'd say Medicine Man is not as good as The Emerald Forest, about as good as End of the Spear or Romancing the Stone, and better than the overrated The African Queen. Rob's rating: 7.5 of 10.

    For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.


    Anonymous said...

    I actually didn't like 'Medicine Man". Nothing more said so I give it a low 3.0 rating.....unless if there any nudity scenes by the lead actress, then maybe my ratings will go up 2 or 3 points.

    Rob said...

    Lorraine Bracco may have been nude in the bathing scene, but you couldn't see anything. But the Native women were topless throughout the movie.