It’s not every day you get to see a performance as bad as Lorraine Bracco’s in Medicine Man, especially when the actress in question is this talented. Bracco, as she proved in GoodFellas, has a diamond-bright sensuality and wit. In Medicine Man, she would seem to be perfectly cast as Dr. Rae Crane, a feisty, uptight biochemist who journeys into the Amazon rain forest to check up on Dr. Robert Campbell (Sean Connery). Campbell, a fellow researcher, has been working for six lonely years in his jungle-hut laboratory and has discovered a holistic cure for cancer.
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.
When the two actors hoist themselves to the top of the forest with pulleys and cranes, swinging through trees like a science-team version of Tarzan and Jane, director John McTiernan (Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October) shows off his gift for gracefully enveloping physical adventure. At moments like this, Medicine Man becomes the dazzling true-life jungle saga it clearly wants to be. The story, though, is built around some very tired devices. Campbell, who uses a rare variety of flower to make his anticancer serum, has lost the formula. Now, he must find it before the flowers are wiped out by the white man’s bulldozers. The race-against-the-clock structure is a flimsy conceit, and the whole notion of an all-in-one cancer cure lurking somewhere in the bushes, though nice to think about, remains a simplistic daydream. In the end, there’s something opportunistic and glib about the way that Medicine Man yokes together medical wish fulfillment and save-the-rain-forest agitprop into a neat, messagey package. Nothing takes the fun out of romance quite like liberal earnestness. C+