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‘Medicine Man’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 07, 1992

When we first see Rae Crane (Lorraine Bracco) in John McTiernan's spectacularly thrilling new movie "Medicine Man," she's strapping on a pair of boots as if she were a warrior preparing for battle. And, in essence, she is. A brilliant research scientist, Crane has been sent to South America by her employers, an American pharmaceutical firm, to check up on Richard Campbell (Sean Connery), a renegade biochemist who's spent the last six years living deep in the rain forests along the Amazon searching for what he believes to be a miracle serum.

For some time, though, Campbell has been doing precisely as he pleases, refusing to submit reports on his findings, account for his expenses, or even communicate with his superiors. Like Kurtz in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," he's off on his own. And, like Marlow, Crane has been sent upriver to find out what the hell is going on.

After an arduous trek on foot and by canoe -- it's a good thing she laced on those boots -- she finally confronts her subject, who is stinking drunk and outfitted for a native ceremony in a lavish straw head-dress, topped with an enormous beak. To say that her first impressions are negative would be a gross understatement. For the audience, though, their initial exchange of antagonistic cross talk and bickering is sublimely funny, a sort of forest primeval variation on '30s movie banter that sets the stage for the battle of sexes to follow.

"Medicine Man," which was written by Tom Schulman ("Dead Poets Society") and Sally Robinson, is a unique confluence of elements: a screwball comedy, a love story, and a medical detective yarn, all in one. And from this heady opening salvo, we get a sense of just what a rare movie we're being drawn into. Few pictures work on this many levels, or present us with characters as strong and richly conceived as these. And yet, miraculously, the film doesn't come across as merely an expedient hybrid of movie conventions. It's a surprise from start to finish, a fresh, compelling, moving tale with real people and real conflicts. It's a wonder.

Crane, the feisty but inexperienced outsider from the Bronx, provides us with a window onto Campbell and his unorthodox methods. She's at the center of the story; it's about her blossoming self-discovery. At first, she's half-convinced that this inhospitable eccentric with the long gray ponytail trailing down his back is mad. Mad or not, though, she's certain she hates his guts. Her opinion changes somewhat when she finds that, during the course of his research, he has come across a compound that is, in effect, a cure for cancer. There's a problem, though. Except for the initial batch of the stuff, he's been unable to reproduce the formula, even after hundreds of attempts. "I found the cure for the plague of the 20th century, and now I've lost it," he bellows.

Having learned of his discovery, Crane is convinced that the company should be brought in to complete the research. It's an enormous breakthrough, and far too important to be left in the hands of only two researchers working with a makeshift lab. But Campbell, for reasons having to do with an earlier tragedy, refuses to allow outside interference. And so he and Crane have to plunge ahead on their own. The key to the formula, Campbell believes, is a flower that grows in the tops of the enormous jungle trees. And the scenes in which, like Tarzan and Jane, they use rope harnesses to ascend high up into the vast leafy canopy of the rain forest are as giddy and unexpected as they are breathtakingly beautiful. They're simply dazzling.

So is the slow progress of the relationship between Campbell and Crane, who turn out to be the most satisfying screen couple in years. There's no sex here, and no real romance, per se. Instead, there's something deeper -- a true meeting of minds and souls. These are two powerful personalities, each as bullheaded and cantankerous as the other, and the antagonism between them never fully abates. But underneath it, an emotional connection is forged, primarily out of mutual respect, and, at least in Crane's case, compassion for a man in tremendous pain.

It's impossible to see how the actors could be any better. As Crane, Bracco displays the kind of tenacious, emotional ferocity that Debra Winger showed in some of her earlier roles, and yet which is completely her own. She's an all-or-nothing actor with the kind of depth and power that plugs directly into your solar plexis. And if that weren't enough, there are scenes in "Medicine Man" -- such as the one in which she gets a buzz off an Indian concoction -- that show an equal talent for comedy.

As for Connery, well, there's just nobody even close to being in his league. Campbell is a tortured man, but Connery underplays his agony so subtly that we feel it all the more strongly. It's a great character for this magnificent actor, one that allows him to express the full range of his talent -- his humor, his charm, his full-bodied emotional resonance. And if he didn't make it all seem so effortless, he might finally be recognized for what he is -- simply the greatest actor alive.

The pleasure we take from "Medicine Man" comes not only from the actors or the engrossing progress of the narrative, but from every aspect, including Donald McAlpine's ravishing cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith's luscious score. Even the ecological message -- which focuses on the building of a road that threatens not only the Indians who have made their home in the forest but also the trees that contain the miracle flowers -- is woven so skillfully and naturally into the fabric of the story that it hardly seems like a message at all. McTiernan's focus as a director is always on the human elements; though his work may have been more flamboyant in "Die Hard" and "The Hunt for Red October," it is even more distinguished here for its integrity and insight. He's grown from an accomplished pyrotechnician into a true artist.

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