Conspiracy Theory (1997)

*. I think I first saw Conspiracy Theory as an in-flight movie around the time it came out. I can’t be entirely sure of this, because if I had seen it then I’d almost completely forgotten it by the time of this re-watch.
*. Completely forgetting Conspiracy Theory is a possibility because the plot itself is so uninteresting. This is a bit surprising given that it has all kinds of potential. But at the end of the day it’s a movie that really doesn’t have much to say, and which only uses its premise (the paranoid kook who is on to something) as a hook to hang a simple action-flick storyline from. I mean, we don’t even know what sort of organization Jonas is working for, who is behind it, or what it does. Jerry tells his handlers at the end that he’ll tell them all about it but then the credits roll.
*. I think this is what’s behind the majority of mainstream critical reviews being disappointed that it wasn’t something more. They saw the potential being frittered away in a conventional and unbelievable star vehicle that drags on for far too long.
*. The direction of Richard Donner and the appearance of Stephen Kahan as Alice’s boss at the Justice Department are enough to make you think this is going to be another Lethal Weapon movie, with Riggs trading in Danny Glover for Julia Roberts. Not to mention Mel Gibson once again being roughed up. Has any actor been tortured as often on screen?
*. But this isn’t a Lethal Weapon movie. For one thing, there aren’t any memorable/special/good action scenes. Indeed there’s not so much as a car chase. No problem-solving either. Alice is directed to where Jerry is being held at the end by a big picture of the building stuck to the collage on his apartment wall with a giant arrow pointing to it. Then when she gets in the building she hears his voice singing through an air vent. Yes, it’s that feeble. This is just going through the motions.
*. There’s also no humour, though I don’t think that was for lack of trying. It’s just that Jerry and Alice have no chemistry. Mel and Julia work hard, but they feel miscast and can’t sell the romance, which struck me as being more stupid than sweet. Really, Jerry comes across as a very disturbed individual and not at all charming.
*. I think it could have been funny, and indeed plays at times as though it wants to turn into a rom-com (something that I find the score also encourages). But Gibson’s manic antics seem out of place here and the comedy is as absent as the action. There is no attempt at satire and the only chuckles I got were from the absurdities in the plot. The legendary black helicopters dropping agents down in crowded city streets? The Organization (whoever they are) keeping Jerry tied up in the abandoned wing of a mental hospital? Didn’t they have a safe house or someplace else to keep him? He needed the entire wing of that enormous building all to himself?
*. I tried to write these notes down as soon after watching Conspiracy Theory as I could because I could already feel myself starting to forget what I’d just seen. By the time I get around to posting this it will all have disappeared again I’m sure.

4 thoughts on “Conspiracy Theory (1997)

  1. Tom Moody

    I like this movie more than you do for a couple of reasons. One, the idea that Mel’s wildly paranoid theories are 100% true and his elaborate self-protection regimen 100% necessary. The premise of Zero Dark Thirty and its ilk is that the “17 agencies” (which one doesn’t really matter) boast flawed but essentially noble professionals “keeping us safe from bad guys.” Conspiracy Theory harks back to the ’70s revelations of unchecked cowboy operations and mind control experiments. This was refreshing in the ’90s and almost taboo to talk about now. Second, the audience for a light hearted romantic spy romp is primed to expect Mel will be “cured” and he never is. He is broken collateral damage still stalking the leading lady at the end of the film. This could be screenwriting ineptitude but I think of the movie as possibly accidentally subversive.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I think those are all good points, Tom. I couldn’t figure out what direction this one was trying to go in. The rom-com idea didn’t work because I didn’t think Gibson and Roberts played well together and I wasn’t sure how to take the comedy. A send-up of the great ’70s conspiracy thrillers? I think maybe they had a good idea but the studio wanted to make it more marketable (especially with two huge stars on the payroll), which led to the film getting pulled in different directions.

      It’s interesting what you say with regard to our changing attitudes about conspiracy theories in general. In the ’70s, with all of the various political scandals going on, they could be played straight. Not a big jump from Redford in All the President’s Men to Redford in Three Days of the Condor. Then in the ’90s you had The X-Files and things were becoming more of a joke, but Fox Mulder was still a hero fighting the establishment. Today there’s the split between those who find any suggestion of a conspiracy to be a sign of madness, like claiming the moon landings were faked or whatever, and the pretty obvious shady dealings of the Trump administration. The waters have certainly gotten muddy.

  2. Tom Moody

    I would say the Quiet American type (exceptionalist meddler who thinks he’s a “good guy” and not a destructive sadist) has been with us consistently from Graham Greene to the “deep state” — Patrick Stewart in this movie being a 1990s incarnation. What changes is entertainment’s willingness to acknowledge the type and its pervasive influence. I think Brian Helgeland, the writer here, wanted to revisit Three Days of the Condor and “got away with it” because this is a harmless rom-com.


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