NEW YORK — "The truth shall make you free." That sentence comes up more than once in "Conspiracy Theory," which makes sense, since a conspiracy buff like hero Jerry Fletcher thrives on the idea that discovering facts, establishing connections, and ferreting out secrets is the route to liberty from the mysterious "they" who covertly control our world.
Another sentence also comes to mind during Jerry's story: "Paranoids have enemies, too." What makes him different from most Hollywood heroes is that he's as dazed and confused as he is likable and handsome. He's a genuine weirdo, the kind of guy who padlocks his percolator so "they" won't be able to poison his morning coffee.
But none of this means he isn't really on to something. With so many theories to pursue, after all, serendipity alone could put him on the trail of something real. And if that's the case, who's to say "they" aren't working to close his mouth forever?
Mel Gibson puts all his "Lethal Weapon" goofiness into Jerry, making him a credible specimen of the New York cabby who's never at a loss for conversation. Everything is grist for his hyperactive imagination, from visions of black helicopters enforcing the "new world order" to a notion that the Vietnam War was sparked by a romantic squabble between Howard Hughes and Aristotle Onassis.
He's a comic character until a nasty bunch of "them" barge into his life, abusing him so mercilessly that you know he must have stumbled onto something big. His only friend is a government official (Julia Roberts) obsessed with her own desire to solve her father's murder.
She fends Jerry off at first but eventually realizes that his enemies are real, even if his craziest theories aren't. They spend the rest of the movie playing cat-and-mouse with a sinister scientist who once had an evil grip on Jerry's life. Also on hand are so many secret agents (CIA, FBI, etc.) it's hard to keep their initials straight - a regular "alphabet soup," to quote a character in Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest," which this picture faintly resembles at times.
Other classics called to mind by "Conspiracy Theory" range from "Taxi Driver," about a Manhattan cabby who sees evil everywhere, to "The Manchurian Candidate," about an ordinary man transformed into a killer by weird science mixed with crooked politics. Readers might also spot echoes of Thomas Pynchon's novel "Gravity's Rainbow," which weaves similar themes into a tapestry that's vastly more complex.
If the new movie proves less popular than its predecessors, it won't be due to "them" sabotaging ticket sales behind the scenes. "Conspiracy Theory" has some amusing dialogue, a few tantalizing ideas - why do famous assassins always have middle names? - and vigorous acting by Gibson and Roberts along with Patrick Stewart as the mad technologist and Cylk Cozart as a sympathetic cop.
But the film by Richard Donner also has an uncertain tone, wavering between the frivolously funny and the deadly serious; and 30 minutes could be trimmed from its long running time. Some of its hardest-hitting violence might have been left in the cutting room, too.
* Rated R. It contains much violence.