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Medicine Man's mundane storyline could use some healing of its own

Medicine Man
Written by Tom Schulman
Directed by John McTiernan
Starring Sean Connery and Lorraine Bracco
At Loews Cheri

By Chris Roberge
Arts Editor

Medicine Man, one of the most politically correct adventure films to be released recently, has several good things working for it. The story concerns the search for a cure for cancer, a plea to halt the destruction of the world's rainforests, a romantic comedy, exotic locations, and not least of all, Sean Connery. But the new movie, directed by John McTiernan of Die Hard and The Hunt For Red October fame, somehow manages to be an exercise in lost causes and missing payoffs. Medicine Man is half-baked entertainment that could use some healing itself.

As the film opens, Dr. Rae Crane (Lorraine Bracco) arrives in the Amazon rain forest to meet with Dr. Robert Cambell (Sean Connery), a prominent Scottish biochemist so immersed in his field work that a request for an assistant and a chromatograph is his first communication with the outside world in years. Crane has traveled to Cambell's laboratory, set up in a remote native village, not only to respond to his message, but to investigate his work and determine if his funding should be cut off. Immediately, the two scientists find themselves at odds because Cambell had asked for male help and, to quote the movie's press release, "A hard-headed female scientist is the last thing Cambell wants around his camp."

Crane begins to warm up to Cambell, whom she first refers to as "Dr. Mengele with a ponytail," particularly after she learns of the significance of his findings. By watching the local medicine man working in the village, Cambell has come across a serum that provides a miraculously effective cure for cancer. However, shortly after witnessing the medicine man's tremendous skills, Cambell stole much of the natives' respect away from him with his modern drugs, and the medicine man, filled with jealousy, left in disgust. Now Cambell can not reproduce the serum, and he hopes that with the help of the talented Dr. Crane, he can discover the elusive ingredient, referred to as "peak 39" because of the mark it leaves on the chromatograph.

As the duo enlists the tribe to help in their search, construction crews make their way through the jungle toward the primitive research center, representing a cancer on the body of the planet. At the same time, Cambell begins to come to terms with his troubled past, and the two scientists begin to fall in love. Medicine Man does a fairly good job of balancing out these subplots, but few of them reach any type of satisfying climax. The romance remains uninteresting, mainly due to a strong lack of chemistry between Connery and Bracco. The deforestation motif is touched upon only slightly and could have used more depth. And the scientific quest storyline, which should provide the film's central pull, suffers from blatantly prominent foreshadowing. It's a definite flaw in a story such as this when the "experts" on the screen are incapable of realizing something even after another character steps forward to tell it to them.

Connery's performance is very strong and enjoyable. He commands the audience's attention as few actors can. But Bracco, who excelled in 1990's GoodFellas, seems lost here -- not just in the jungle setting, but in a script that affords her none of the character complexity that she is used to.

There is something else fairly troubling about Medicine Man. Early in the film, there is an extraordinary scene in which Cambell introduces Crane to the beauty of the jungle and the complicated system of harnesses, platforms, and highwires used to travel through the forest canopy (which he refers to as a "pharmacological superstore"). The pair glides among the branches far above the jungle floor while Jerry Goldsmith's score swells in the background and Donald McAlpine's camera tracks through the foliage. In this sequence and many others showcasing the native culture, Medicine Man is at its best, transporting the viewer to unfamiliar locations and peoples. Yet for some reason, Tom Schulman's story seems content to insert mundane and formulaic plot developments into this exotic world. Medicine Man would have fared better if the sense of fascination and wonder that exists in these few scenes had been allowed to fill more of the movie.