August 18, 1997 12:00 PM

Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts

Part of Mel Gibson’s onscreen appeal, besides his roguish good looks and undeniable acting skill, has long been that many of his characters (including those he played in Mad Max, the three Lethal Weapons and even Braveheart) seem to exist just a step or two this side of sanity. In Conspiracy Theory, Gibson finally crosses over the line, playing a conspiracy-obsessed Manhattan cab driver who spouts a constant stream of wacko-sounding theories (such as the Vietnam War was fought because Howard Hughes lost a bet to Aristotle Onassis, and the space shuttle is causing earthquakes). For a while his agile portrayal of this psychologically shattered man is fascinating to watch.

This crackpot cabby badgers a government attorney (Roberts) with his theories, and she grudgingly tolerates his frequent visits to her office only because he once saved her from a mugging. “This guy is a restraining order waiting to happen,” she mutters to a colleague, only half joking. Unbeknownst to Roberts, Gibson also parks his taxi outside her apartment building at night and watches through binoculars as she works out on her treadmill. Not exactly a gentleman hero. But, as this romantic thriller quickly establishes, some of what Gibson natters on about is actually true, and a certain highly placed government psychiatrist (Patrick Stewart, reeking evil) is out to kidnap and torture Gibson to find out exactly what he knows.

The problem with Conspiracy Theory, the fifth cinematic collaboration between Gibson and director Richard Donner (their earlier efforts are Maverick and all three Lethal Weapons), is that, while the movie starts off promisingly with a yeasty fizz, it falls flat two thirds of the way through. The big, dark secret behind Gibson’s lunacy just isn’t clever enough, too much back plot is laboriously explained, and there are three endings too many As for Roberts, few demands are made upon her other than to let her lower lip tremble in fear, which she does admirably. (R)

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