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April 4, 2014

Extreme Measures

by Franz Patrick


Extreme Measures (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★

Two men (Shaun Austin-Olsen, André De Shields) wearing no clothing run out of a building, desperate to get away from a car with two men holding guns (David Morse, Bill Nunn). Claude and Teddy decide to go their separate ways for a better chance of survival. Claude ends up in Gramercy Hospital under the care of Dr. Guy Luthan (Hugh Grant). But the patient is barely able to speak because his very high fever is accompanied by uncontrollable body seizures, requiring about six people to hold him down. When Claude’s smorgasbord of strange symptoms calm down on their own, seconds before his death, the patient mentions “Triphase” which Dr. Luthan assumes to be a drug. The doctor is deeply bothered by the incident so he decides to investigate.

Based on the novel by Michael Palmer, “Extreme Measures” works like a treacherous vine that slowly wraps around the audience. When it finally decides to put on the squeeze, it is too late for us to resist its dark charms. Our minds are too invested in the mystery that connects doctors, cops, and homeless men.

The early scenes in the emergency room unfold with great fascination. Because Dr. Luthan is inevitably our eyes, ears, and moral center, there has to be something concrete about him that we can root for. In the emergency ward, we learn about his capacity to deal with stress. Not only does he have to make rapid and astute decisions about which drug to use or which tool is necessary to make the patient more comfortable, he has to take into consideration the various personalities of his staff, patients, and random onlookers. When he is asked to make a decision to give the only operating room available to either a criminal or a cop, I swore I held my breath.

The distinction between a moral and medical decision is a fine line indeed. He gains my attention and confidence not because I thought he made the right or wrong call. It is because he deals with his decision seriously yet not without a sense of humor.

Tony Gilroy’s screenplay consistently increases the ante with Dr. Luthan snooping around certain dark rooms because no one can or will bother to answer his questions about Claude’s missing corpse, but I wished it has less scenes of suggestive romance between our protagonist and a nurse (Sarah Jessica Parker). While Grant and Parker are convincing in their roles, the romantic angle feels forced and ultimately distracts from the mystery and thrills. It does not help that there is a drought of chemistry between the actors when they give each other too knowing dreamy looks.

I would rather have seen more of Dr. Myrick (Gene Hackman) and the methods of his research. At times, the material challenges us whether the nature of his work makes him the villain of the piece. After all, there is no denying that he just hopes to give people with severe spinal injuries a chance to be able to go on with their lives again.

Directed by Michael Apted, “Extreme Measures” poses interesting questions about ethics and morals in medicine and research. Though most are left unanswered, it is most understandable. The answers that matter most are sometimes found in ourselves and they may not necessarily be so easy to come to terms with.

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