Screenplay : David Klass
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Peter McCabe (Michael Keaton), Frank Connor (Andy Garcia), Jeremiah Cassidy (Brian Cox), Samantha Hawkins (Marcia Gay Harden), Nate Oliver (Erik King), Matthew Connor (Joseph Cross)
Barbet Schroeder's "Desperate Measures" gets under your skin from the get-go, and not in a good way. In the opening sequence, two men are stealing into an FBI office to tap into the government's computer. The sequence is shot with dark shadows, moody music, and odd angles; on it's own terms, it's effective and suspenseful. Except for . . . the damn credits.
It is rare that I would ever complain about the opening credits getting on my nerves, but whoever designed this sequence for "Desperate Measures" needs to have his head examined. During the whole scene, actors' and production names are scrolling along parts of the building -- across floors, along windows, winding their way along walls and over corners. It's a neat graphics trick, but it's annoying and distracting, and it doesn't do much for getting you into the mood.
Which, in the end, doesn't really matter because it turns out that "Desperate Measures" is desperately in need of something. The movie is supposed to play as a combination action and psychological thriller, but all its thrills and chills are lifted from better movies and plopped into a contrived, implausible plot that shocks us only by insisting that we constantly accept situations and developments that are well beyond the phrase "suspension of disbelief."
One of the men in the opening sequence is Frank Connor (Andy Garcia). He is breaking into the FBI computer because he's looking for a bone marrow match for his son, Matthew (Joseph Cross), who has leukemia and is close to death. The computer shows that the only donor available is Peter McCabe (Michael Keaton), a tough and brilliant sociopath locked in a nine by nine foot cell for multiple murder and several escape attempts (hint, hint).
When Frank first meets with Peter, the tone is right out of "The Silence of the Lambs." Frank is warned about not letting Peter get into his head, which is lesson one in the Hannibal Lector School of Dealing with Psychopaths. Of course, that advice turns out to be unneeded because the whole "Silence of the Lambs" mood is quickly exchanged for action mode more worthy of "Die Hard" or "The Fugitive." Maybe screenwriter David Klass found it was much easier to write action sequences than psychological wordplay.
After McCabe agrees to the bone marrow transplant, he is taken to a hospital where he puts an elaborate and utterly ridiculous escape plan into motion. Of course, all the cops want to shoot him dead, but Frank can't let that happen because if McCabe dies, so does Matthew. You see, his bone marrow will be useless if he is dead, so Frank is caught in a three-prong web: he has to single-handedly capture McCabe alive while keeping the cops from killing both of them while also keeping McCabe from hurting anyone else.
Although "Desperate Measures" was nicely shot by cinematographer Luciano Tavoli, and it has a few intriguing set-pieces, almost every sequence stretches the limits of disbelief, which creates a jarring effect that keeps us from getting truly involved in the action. Every time you question something in a movie, that all-important spell has been broken. The spell can only be broken so many times before all hope is lost. In "Desperate Measures," it doesn't take long at all.
For example, when McCabe first escapes off the operating table, he is shot in the leg and has at least a dozen cops combing the corridors for him. Yet, despite leaving a trail of blood behind him, he has enough time to force a laser surgeon to cut his leg shackles, and then steal into the ER and sew up his own leg so he can spend the rest of the film running on it full speed. C'mon. I won't even go into the ludicrous highway chase that serves as the grand climax.
Schroeder has tested the limits of genre films before with "Single White Female," and there he managed to raise the level of the slasher pic with a keen sense of black humor and strong performances from his leads. In "Desperate Measures," the humor is too suppressed and the performances don't stand out like they need to. Keaton's sociopath offers nothing new to the genre; he plays like a hybrid of Hannibal Lector and a muted version of Harry Connick Jr's. redneck serial killer in "Copycat." Keaton is never truly creepy or threatening. Garcia is mostly relegated to the background because he has no emotional vibrancy, and Marcia Gay Harden has little to do as Matthew's doctor.
"Desperate Measures" is finally upended not so much from bad plotting, but because of Frank's character. In his mad rush to save Matthew his contempt for any other human life other than his son's withers away all our sympathy for both his character and his plight. This is ultimately destructive because the plight to save his son's life is the only real drive the movie has, and once that is drained of gas, there's little left but a lot of empty sound and fury.
©1998 James Kendrick