What’s the Oscar-winning star of Braveheart doing in the role of Jerry Fletcher, the kind of crackpot cabdriver every New Yorker fears hailing? The cassette box plays up the pairing of Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, but 10 minutes into Conspiracy Theory you know Jerry’s too seriously crazed to get the girl. There isn’t even a tushie shot here. What gives?

What gives is Gibson’s rarely acknowledged penchant for playing damaged goods: men with crippling neuroses, with blasted pasts, with half a face. The bulk of his credits, to be sure, involve straight-ahead derring-do: It’s our loss that Gibson tends to play only one Jerry Fletcher for every Ransom, Braveheart, and Maverick. But that alone sets him apart from such matinee-idol peers as Harrison Ford or Kevin Costner. Like them, Mel has ambitions that sometimes lead him into pomposity, but the prickly intelligence that makes him so inherently watchable keeps popping up in characters who glower and stammer and fret.

The transformation from leading man to loony tune is right there in Mad Max, the Australian car-crash cult flick that first brought Gibson fame. The flat Midwestern voices dubbed in for American release mean that you’re getting only half a performance (this version is still the only one available on U.S. home video), but there’s a hair-raisingly prescient moment toward the end, as callow outback cop Max Rockatansky vows vengeance after cycle goons mow down his wife and child, when the generic young actor suddenly blooms with vivid fury. Equally unexpected was Gibson’s next film, Tim, in which he plays a mildly retarded handyman who finds love with businesswoman Piper Laurie. The romance is awfully Harlequin, but Gibson makes his character decent and dim and completely lacking in charisma—a tougher trick to pull off than you might think.

Especially when you look at Lethal Weapon the hit that put the star on Hollywood’s A list. Two mechanical sequels may have dulled your memory, but go back and take a look at the original: Gibson is flat-out sensational as L.A. detective, ex-Vietnam sniper, recent widower, and stray bullet Martin Riggs. From the moment you first see him—lying naked in his trailer, swigging a beer and watching Family Feud—Gibson pours so much mischievous rage into the ”burnt-out cop” stereotype that he’s genuinely scary.

Having proved his mettle as an action hero and heartthrob, he may have felt compelled to bow in the direction of Art. Thus Hamlet, the all-star Franco Zeffirelli film that allowed Gibson to play perhaps the most famous emotional basket case of them all. Sadly, it’s a muscular, honorable, and all too studied performance, lacking the off-kilter energy Gibson does best. ”I have of late…lost all my mirth,” says Hamlet, and this time he’s not kidding. That new, dullish mournfulness carried over into The Man Without a Face, Gibson’s directing debut and a solid little drama about a boy and the scarred loner who becomes his tutor. The latter is a proud, angry, thoughtful man, but for the most part he knows who he is, and Gibson is always more interesting when his characters are scrabbling for identity.

In Conspiracy Theory, no one knows who Jerry Fletcher is—least of all Jerry. Is he a sweaty-palmed nebbish with a paranoid spin on every news story? Is he a modern Manchurian candidate? Or is he just a nice guy whose brain has been put through the secret-op Laundromat too often? As directed by Weapon‘s Richard Donner, Theory is too beholden to Hollywood clichés to work well: Aside from the plot holes, absurd coincidences, and villain-explains-it-all-while-holding-a-gun scene, there’s the simple fact that Mel Gibson is too damn good-looking to be a yammering nutcase. They could have at least given him bad teeth.

Physical vanity aside, though, Gibson goes the distance and then some. It’s hard to imagine another male superstar in the ’90s who would even think about the scene where Peeping-Tom Jerry looks through the window of the Justice Department lawyer played by Roberts as she jogs on a treadmill. Sitting in his cab, humid with thwarted nerd love, he twiddles the car radio until he finds the song she’s singing to. And then he sits there, bleak-eyed and lost, singing along with her. It’s such a tawdry, true moment that it makes the eventual sort-of romance between these two seem even more trumped-up. Unfortunately, Conspiracy Theory ends up as schizoid as its hero—but never quite as alluringly split as its star’s career. Conspiracy Theory: B Mad Max: C Tim: C- Lethal Weapon: A- Hamlet: B The Man Without a Face: B+

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