Super-producer Joel Silver was the unrivalled king of late '80s/early '90s ball-busting movie action, riding shotgun over a range of genre-defining behemoths that included Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Commando and Predator. In recent years, however, he's lost acres of ground to Jerry Bruckheimer, who's been beating Mr Silver at his own game - with, in particular, those massively successful Nicolas Cage starrers The Rock and Con Air.
Time, then, for the redoubtable Silver to re-enlist the services of his two most successful collaborators, Lethal Weapon golden boysRichard Donner and Mel Gibson, and take another swipe at blockbuster glory. But no - this latest crack at the newly revitalised conspiracy genre plays host to Mel's worst performance for years. It dives headfirst into the U-bend after the first 20 minutes.
Inconsistent (and knackered from the start by an embarrassingly feeble plot), Brian Helgeland's script starts out with a clever hook then blows it: the initially promising conspiracy angle becomes just a convenient jumping-off point for a dull, thin story about renegade government assassins - yawn.
Thus what might have become an interesting movie quickly degenerates into a second-rate pursuit thriller, in which scowling CIA operatives chase Gibson and Roberts all over Manhattan. All but castrated by Donner and Helgeland's completely inconsistent tone, the film lurches between broad, almost-slapstick humour and laborious, lumbering action. Although Helgeland works in some smart jokes (a running gag about the variable results of cracking skulls with gun butts, and an inspired rant about Oliver Stone's cleverly concealed status as a shadow government mouthpiece), these aren't nearly enough to offset the yards and yards of expositionary dialogue foisted on his lead characters. The wheezy climax scores particularly badly in this respect - it's stuffed with more repetitive, heavy-handed explanations than the creakiest episode of Scooby Doo.
As for Gibson, his "They're out to get us all" Jerry Fletcher is just one too many eyeball-rolling trips around the psycho ward - this from the man who's already given us the educationally subnormal Tim, the less than reasonable Mad Max and the dangerously suicidal Martin Riggs. Admittedly, Jerry is a more confused, less heroic brand of nutter than Riggs, but he shares many of that character's familiar facial tics and vein-popping stares. Mel does calm down a bit after his dialogue-babbling overdrive in the first half-hour, but he can't pull off the blend of pathos and menace he appears to be shooting for. Julia Roberts is equally ineffective, blanding it up a storm as the well-bred attorney who begins a highly unlikely romance with Jerry. (He twitches a lot, remember. And drives a cab.)
Patrick Stewart, usually a charismatic geezer, is wasted as Jerry's evil tormentor, the vicious Dr Jonas. After kicking off with a promising burst of torture à la Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, the film then decides to marginalise Stewart, and does so determinedly; he's forced to remove his Gestapo specs for a colourless boardroom Britvillain role. Only Cylk Cozart, as humorous nice bloke Agent Lowry, sustains any real performing success, but his scenes are too few and far between to reverse the trend.
The only truly satisfying thing about Conspiracy Theory is Carter Burwell's jazzy and exciting score - it's so good it sounds like it's wandered in from another movie. Film scores, of course, aren't designed to entertain by themselves, so Burwell only succeeds in throwing the movie's lack of quality into very sharp relief.
Had Silver and Donner avoided copping out over Jerry's mental illness, had they remained true to Conspiracy Theory's initial plot concept, and had they opted for suspense over easy thrills and gaping story holes, they might have made the most of the attached talent - they might have created a Three Days Of The Condor for the '90s. Instead they've delivered a sprawling, ill-conceived hash that confirms the sharp career decline hinted at by their last collaboration, the equally overlong dodgefest Assassins.