Extreme Measures

extrememeasuresCommon wisdom states that a thriller is only as effective as its villain: Ultimately, the hero’s danger is only as real as his fear of what the bad guy can do to him. This hero needs to be threatened – and in American movies, that means (almost always) that he is physically threatened. Thrillers may have some moral purpose, but without these archetypal characters (hero and villain), they don’t move. Extreme Measures works like a thriller. At times it is astonishingly brutal. But the scattershot characterization of its villain and his henchman makes the villainy less tenable, less effective as thriller material. This leaves the film as an unfortunate coulda-been.

Hugh Grant plays superhero doctor in early-90s hair and jeans. One night in E.R., a man wearing only a plastic sheet and sporting recent surgical scars dies on his table. The one clue as to what happened is a medical ID tag from some other, mysterious hospital. Being the sort of doctor who cares about his patients, Grant visits his by-the-book bosses and investigates the death.

Of course, the man was the subject of medical experimentation, as performed by the saintly Gene Hackman. Both of these facts were front and center in the film’s advertising campaign, and both promise a lot more intrigue than is delivered. Extreme Measures combines 90s conspiracies with some well-observed medical professional details. (Grant has a boss whose main beef is that no-one can pay for thousands spent on a test for a dead patient.) When it’s really humming in the mid-section, the film makes eerily clear just how quickly someone’s life can be flushed down the toilet.

The doctors and cops who ruin Grant’s life are given sympathetic affectations – the FBI agent and the cop who plant cocaine on him have family members that will benefit from Hackman’s illegal research. Reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby and the sense of banal, smiling evil is a chilling scene of Hackman showing videos of his ultimately murderous surgeries to an appreciative group of hopeful beneficiaries. But it is in rising action that the film missteps. Rather than expand on its workaday atmospherics, the film takes a long and ill-advised trip to some hobo paradise under the train station where the indigent are as clean, noble and multi-ethnic as any late-80s urban movie gang. As an FBI agent who chases Grant in the train tunnels, the always reliable David Morse leaves his cop partner to die. This is thriller-villain lackey stuff, not a good citizen bending and breaking his personal rules for the betterment of his wife, who cannot feed herself.

In a nifty cameo as the head of a hospital board who fires Grant, David Cronenberg reminds us that great work in the same genre is possible. Extreme Measures and all of Cronenberg’s films use the genre as a starting point, but Cronenberg refuses to fall into the same traps as this movie. In the superficially similar Videodrome (man stumbles on a conspiracy that involves human experimentation, becoming its latest victim), Cronenberg follows his concept to its logical, terrible conclusion. Extreme Measures wants the open-minded controversial ideas and the Hollywood genre touchstones at the same time, and they do each other in.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email kentc@explodedgoat.com