Natural Causes (1994): Needham’s Political Thriller, Starring Janis Paige, Ali MacGraw

Santa Barbara Festival, March 5, 1994–Set in Bangkok, Natural Causes is a messy, incoherent political thriller about a young American woman who finds herself in the midst of a plot to assassinate former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The picture makes good use of Bangkok’s colorful scenery, but its roguish, muddled plot and maladroit, uninvolving direction should take it straight to video domestically.

Jake Raymond Needham’s tale begins rather suspensefully, when Rachel McCarthy (Janis Paige), an American woman, is killed in her limo on the way to the airport to meet her estranged daughter Jessie (Linda Purl), whom she has not seen for ten years. Upon arrival at her mother’s beautiful estate, the naive Jesse begins to realize that her mother, who lost a husband and son in the Vietnam war, was engaged in a mysterious international scheme involving Vietnamese refugees.

Natural Causes aims to be an engaging conspiracy story about an attempt to sabotage the reconciliation treaty between Vietnam and the U.S. And, initially, its gallery of characters is colorful enough for a web of deception and international intrigue. Along the way, Jessie meets Fran Jakes (Ali MacGraw), a U.S. State Department official, CIA agent Michael Murphy (Will Patton), and Major Somchai (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a high-ranking Thai detective.

Unfortunately, scripter Needham concocts a hugely improbable, and often preposterous, stew. His film is carried forward not by logic, but by a relentlessly mechanic outline that defies narrative or political sense. Scant clues are given to the characters’ motivations, but ultimately the convoluted plot is of no particular consequence.

Novice director James Becket fails to interweave the various subplots and characters in a dramatically involving manner. And in the midst of tension, he commits a fatal error by placing a lengthy romantic sequence between Jesse and Somchai, an interlude that literally arrests the film.

As the heroine, Linda Purl acquits herself as a pleasant leading lady, but Ali MacGraw, in what is described as her screen comeback, is as stiff as she was during her heyday as a movie star. Will Patton, usually a good offbeat character actor, is totally wasted, and same applies to Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, who was recently most impressive in Rising Sun.

The only reward in watching Natural Causes, a thriller in which plot mechanisms are dropped without any pleasure or surprise, is its local Thai scenery, which is well shot by Denis Maloney.