Extreme Measures (1996)

D: Michael Apted
S: Hugh Grant, Gene Hackman

Though misjudged in terms of tone, Michael Apted's film of Michael Palmer's novel is a thought-provoking study of medical ethics masquerading as a thriller. This proves to be its downfall, especially when scattered scenes of suspense and action are juxtaposed with more painful and probing questions of character and motivation as doctor Hugh Grant uncovers a medical conspiracy involving illegal surgery which may or may not serve the greater good. It uncomfortably oscillates between Hitchcockian innocent-in-jeopardy territory and the paranoia thrillers of the 1970s, a fact made more obvious by the presence of Gene Hackman as the ambiguous villain.

Grant handles himself quite well in the lead for the most part in a welcome break from the embarrassed romantic heroes he seems doomed to play forever. That Elizabeth Hurley was one of the producers probably had something to do with this of course, but he has served her well in this instance. Early scenes of his dedication and competence give way to the mystery plot when a patient arrives at his hospital with unfathomable symptoms and speaking in riddles. His initial investigations uncover nothing, but the audience are soon privy to the fact that he has gained the attention of powerful forces who stand poised to destroy his life.

It is unfortunate that so much of the nefarious activities of these shadow men are portrayed in such routine terms. Tantalizing glimpses into their private worlds and motivations which explain why Hackman has influence over them are abandoned to backstory, and we are instead treated to much running and shooting which ultimately fails to generate the necessary tension. There are some interesting moments, such as when Grant descends into the underworld of the New York homeless in search of answers, but these usually don't match up with the thematic explorations going on elsewhere in the plot. One senses a lot of internal monologue material didn't make it past Tony Gilroy's adaptation and simplification, a necessary evil of screenplay form, but this damages the film because Apted attempts to compensate by clumsily switching between scenes of action and scenes of dialogue and/or reflection instead of finding an actual balance between them in the manner of the better Alan J. Pakula films.

It's a shame because there's an interesting film in here somewhere, and it does leave you thinking about the issues it has raised even if it hasn't been consistently entertaining either as thriller or drama. The climax does give way to speechifying, but it is perhaps inevitable, as is the ambiguous coda. On the whole it is moderately watchable, a time-filler on a slow night which provides mixed pleasures and inconsistent rewards. It has not been helped by its advertising campaign though, promising an edge-of-your-seat thriller when it is nothing of the kind. It aspires to be, at times, but it is at its most interesting when it does not. This is not a happy state of affairs for a major motion picture, and its fate is probably sealed as a result.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.