You're a doctor on duty in a hospital emergency room. Ambulances arrive and disgorge two gunshot victims. One is a cop and the other a drug-dealing scumbag. Both men need surgery, but the drug dealer is in more immediate danger. Only one operating room is available. The cop's colleagues, his priest, his sobbing wife -- they're all standing in the hallway watching you through the window. Your medical training tells you to tend to the drug dealer first; his wounds pose greater danger. But your sensibilities -- not to mention all those wide-eyed faces in the hallway -- plead for the cop. What do you do?
Extreme Measures compellingly poses that question early on; Guy Luthan, an emergency room doctor played with grace, subtlety, and minimal stammering by Hugh Grant, has to make the call. His decision (which he later second-guesses) gives us important insight into his character. Toward the end of the film he will face a similar choice, but the stakes will have risen dramatically. Unfortunately, by that point Extreme Measures will have long since flatlined into a lame and laughably stupid suspense flick complete with chase scene, gratuitous gunplay, and contrived heroics. Not to mention the absurd spectacle of a mild-mannered physician duking it out with a murderous ex-FBI agent in an elevator. Is it just me, or do the possibilities of a character played by Divine Brown's meal ticket holding his own against a trained killer in a brawl seem remote? One cannot help but wonder if EM's producer -- Elizabeth Hurley, Grant's incredibly tolerant real-life squeeze -- insisted on at least one scene during which Luthan/Grant gets the snot beat out of him. Doubters take note: Grant's character doesn't get to enjoy so much as a peck on the cheek from the quasi-romantic interest played by Sarah Jessica Parker.
The movie starts out promisingly, establishing a premonitory, Gothic atmosphere -- partly on the strength of Danny Elfman's score, partly on the basis of director Michael Apted's grim and gritty visuals (which call to mind the stylized noir of Batman crossed with the relentless squalor of Seven). Measures introduces us to a pair of naked men breaking out of some sort of cold, evil institution and running for their lives. One of the men disappears into the night; the other winds up in Doc Luthan's emergency room. Luthan is a brilliant young resident just days away from moving on to a promising career in neurology research. The film takes pains to immerse us in the doctor's hectic, exhausting routine; it conveys a real sense of the seemingly impossible workload of an ER staff, the adrenaline rush and the life-and-death decisions routinely made on the fly. The frazzled-but-heroic-doctor character is a staple of popular culture; Grant brings charm and a sense of urgency to the role, lending Extreme a measure of authenticity that exceeds the ER/Chicago Hope norm. You almost wish the movie would content itself just to follow Grant's character as he makes his rounds.
But director Apted (Nell) and screenwriter Tony Gilroy's social consciences get in the way. They don't seem to appreciate the skillful little character study occurring right under their noses. The filmmakers pursue a larger (at least in their minds) agenda: They seek to gene splice Michael Crichton and Robin Cook's suspenseful medical thriller Coma with the big moral question of whether you can justify sacrificing a few human guinea pigs to save the lives of thousands. You could say they shoot for huge (as in statement) when they should stick with Hugh (as in Grant).
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So this bizarre patient, naked and in the throes of what appears to be a violent seizure, finds himself in Dr. Luthan's care. But the good doctor has no idea how to begin treating the man; his vital signs jerk around almost as wildly as his flailing arms and spasming torso. Suddenly the seizure abates and the patient appears to stabilize. He tells the doctor his name, whispers a few mysterious words, and then, whammo! Another, even more vehement seizure strikes; this time the guy croaks. If Apted and Gilroy really wanted to examine a topical dilemma, perhaps they should have tried to answer this riddle: Why do the mortally wounded in second-rate movies always manage to disclose some critical plot detail just before going belly up?
When a blood test taken before the mystery man's death shows all kinds of freaky results, Dr. Luthan investigates. This being a sort-of thriller, somebody out there objects to the doctor's probing and takes steps to thwart his inquiry. The corpse disappears without a trace, sans autopsy. Luthan's colleagues chastise him for his burgeoning obsession. The doctor presses on, eventually risking his career and his life to get to the bottom of the morass. And when he gets there, what does he find? Anyone, especially those who have seen the film's promotional trailer, can tell you.
Have I mentioned the mole people? When Extreme Measures ventures outside the confines of the hospital, the going gets really weird. Apted and Gilroy plunge off the deep end and into the bowels of Manhattan's subway system, where they introduce an organized underground colony of homeless people. (Displaced individuals taking shelter in the subway tunnels' nooks and crannies is one thing; a thriving, full-blown cooperative society of such folks is quite another.) Up to this point the filmmakers have tried to portray the bad guys as relatively sympathetic characters, slightly misguided but humane types who sincerely believe in their cause. But any good will the villains may have accrued with the audience is squandered when one of them starts firing bullets point-blank into the heads of innocent, unarmed tunnel dwellers. It may as well be Apted and Gilroy pulling the trigger and blowing away their own failed experiment of a movie.
Written by Tony Gilroy; directed by Michael Apted; with Hugh Grant, Gene Hackman, and Sarah Jessica Parker.