The great plus of the hospital-set thriller “Extreme Measures” is that you won’t walk away from it thinking your health care coverage is the worst in the world. This chilling look at emergency room politics wrestles contemporary medical ethics to an unsatisfactory draw. Similarly, its mix of real and exaggerated situations doesn’t quite jell, making for a commercial diagnosis that’s good but not great. In an attempt to be provocative as well as a good nail-biter, the film falls a tad short on both counts.
The extremely schematic plot opens with two nude men (save for some strategically placed plastic sheeting) dodging dark forces on their trail in the neon-lit streets of Manhattan. Meanwhile, ER doc Guy Luthan (Hugh Grant) is consumed with making quick, calm and reasoned life-and-death decisions at Gramercy Hospital. Soon, their two paths will converge.
The homeless Claude Minkins (Shaun Austin-Olsen) is assumed to be suffering from exposure to the elements and drug-related symptoms, neither of which is a big deal. But inexplicably he goes into convulsions and just as abruptly stabilizes. Before he expires, Minkins tells the good doctor to go to “the room” and find Teddy Dolson, who will explain the dying man’s condition.
While the rest of the staff write off the incident as an oddity, it becomes Luthan’s obsession. A battery of tests produces wholly contradictory results, and, one by one, each door of the investigation is shut. Minkins’ file disappears, his body is lost, seemingly never having been in the morgue, and a senior hospital staff member rather forcefully tells the young doc to move on to more pressing issues.
What we got here is a mystery.
But for anyone with even a passing knowledge of tales that prey on medical paranoia both recent and vintage the destination is pretty clear. There’s a mad doctor out there who’s playing God. Like doctors Frankenstein and Moreau, his noble intentions were subverted long ago when he began to experiment on unwilling human guinea pigs.
Scripter Tony Gilroy, perhaps sensing the obviousness of the story’s conventions, takes a wrong turn in prolonging the inevitable. He’s overly coy in revealing the nature of the experiment (growing spinal nerves) and in pitting the protagonist against the villain of the piece the brilliant Dr. Lawrence Myrick (Gene Hackman).
Until the last act, “Extreme Measures” pretty much does a narrative dog paddle. The worst of it is a trumped-up drug charge that gets the young doctor temporarily suspended and enables him to spend all his time ducking bullets in the quest for Teddy Dolson.
Far more compelling is the rather inspired manner in which the film tackles the issue of the cost and quality of medical care in America. It’s quite clear that many otherwise moral characters in the story are led astray by the carrot of receiving cutting-edge medical treatment for a loved one. That’s the film’s most spine-tingling undercurrent.
Rather than come to grips with this novel element, the final confrontation boils down to the two medicos debating ends and means. Luthan, initially believing he’s been paralyzed, comes face to face with his physical and moral weaknesses. As well, Myrick is an effective advocate for sacrifice in the name of progress. But the argument comes too late and is presented in a contrived manner.
Grant deserves most of the credit for keeping interest up as the story meanders through well-known territory. He’s convincing in whites in fact, he has the attitude and self-confidence you’d want in an attending physician. Hackman has a much more difficult challenge. His role isn’t really well conceived, and one feels his efforts to bring nuance and texture to a cardboard scoundrel. The rest of the cast, especially Sarah Jessica Parker as a senior nurse, have parts that function almost entirely as plot devices.
Director Michael Apted employs a deliberate style and pace that point up rather than pave over the holes in the story. The look of the film also seems misguided, with John Bailey’s camera effecting a cold, harsh look that gives even the healthy characters a sickly pallor.
Still, on a moment-to-moment basis there’s a lot to recommend in the movie, which does work as a conventional thriller. But it’s obvious the filmmakers had more lofty ambitions and not quite enough prep time to ensure that “Extreme Measures” would emerge from the operating theater an unqualified success.