Desperate Measures (1998)

Director: Barbet Schroeder

Starring: Michael Keaton, Andy Garcia, Marcia Gay Harden

Release date: January 30 (US). Well, this one looks straight forward, another action-thriller. They look a bit grumpy on the poster, don’t they. May contain a bemused Brian Cox (not the scientist) and spoilers…

Frank Conner has already lost his wife in a car accident. Now his son Matthew is dying, leukaemia, unless a bone marrow donor can be found in time. Oh, aye. Peter McCabe is his name, a maximum security, high risk, cold-cast psychopath. McCabe is so scary, right, he can even intimidate an Alsatian. After a spot of cruel mind games with Frank, he agrees to be a donor… but he’s got other ideas. He escapes the operating table ingeniously before the procedure can be performed. If he can’t be caught, Matt will die. If he’s shot dead by a police marksman, the bone marrow will be useless and Matt will die. Frank’s in a quandary; help his colleagues stop McCabe getting out and going on another inevitable killing spree in which thousands of innocent children might die, or protect his quarry…?

Whoa… Keaton’s looking evil!

There’s very little point in me going through this flick picking at the holes; Desperate Measures positively glorifies in its holes. Logic? Don’t bother, that’s not why we’re here. Here’s an example, not a great one but an example nonetheless. McCabe (Michael Keaton) gets shot in the leg early on. He recognises he needs to deal with the blood loss pronto otherwise his escape plans are banjaxed. We see him stitching his leg up behind a drawn curtain in the ER. Job’s a good ‘un. Hold on, how did he hobble in there unnoticed? How did he get to the ER unnoticed? The hospital is on high alert, the place is crawling with the bizzies, he’s trailing blood and a doctor’s coat ain’t fooling anyone in this instance. Listen to me – it does not matter. Director Barbet Schroeder wants you to roll with it so roll. That doesn’t mean I can’t have some fun nitpicking, the temptation is just too great not to.

The kid is good…

So, they need to perform the bone marrow operation and nice doctor Samantha (Marcia Gay Harden) is quite adamant they have to take McCabe’s cuffs off to perform the procedure. They’ve still got his hands strapped to the table though – but unbeknownst to them he’s dislocated his thumb, meaning he can slip one hand out of the binding. Plus, he’s also got an ampoule of anti-OD-ing drug in his mouth (might be adrenaline, can’t remember). Well, it’s in his throat to be exact and tied to a tooth by a piece of thread. When they try to anaesthetise him, a partial regurgitation is all it takes and pop! The thing is, once he’s in position for the op, they can chain him up again. When he’s under the anaesthetic, chains off again if necessary. Honestly, how hard is that? “You’ll have to remove his restraints.” – “Okay. When he’s under, will do.” Obviously it’s moot because he’s got the anti-anaesthetic drug but they don’t know that. But Schroeder takes the trouble to show us the method of McCabe’s preparation in the build-up – via montage, of course – no matter how implausible; you’ve at least got something to hang your disbelief on.

The Surgical Hat Showdown – and the winner is…

Anyway, you can go scene by scene like that, the ludicrous-ometer nudging higher each time. The only reason to watch this is Michael Keaton… maybe two reasons, but Keaton is the main one. He makes for an adequate nutter though he does slip into ‘Keaton’ mode the longer the film goes on. I wanted to continue to see the vacant, bespectacled individual we were initially introduced to. For me, the movie falls into the trap of loving its bad guy a little too much, as evidenced in the last scene when Schroeder expects the audience to side with a multiple murderer. You can’t completely hate Keaton. It’s even harder because he hasn’t got a great foil to play off in Andy Garcia. It may be a visual thing; they’re alike in age and physique. I don’t think Frank is a strong enough character to go head-to-head with McCabe and it’s sometimes difficult to identify with his predicament. I’m watching Marcia Gay Harden thinking ‘maybe they could’ve made Frank a woman’, or would that alter the donor angle – would a mother be more compatible as a bone marrow donor negating the need for an unhinged psycho? Garcia just isn’t Frank Connor, the role doesn’t fit him at all.

Bruce Wayne, about to bring the pain, yo…

Garcia is acted off the screen by Joseph Cross as Frank’s dying son Matt. It speaks volumes that Desperate Measures never sinks into syrupy melodrama because of this kid’s performance. He delivers lines like; “The cancer’s back isn’t it?” Then having received the affirmation, he continues his previous conversation about aeroplanes. No big weepy moment. Even better, when considering that part of a killer will be a part of him after the op; “He’s gonna be inside me, dad.” Bang, out of the park, Joseph. Not to mention he calls McCabe an ‘asshole’ to his face. By the time McCabe gets around to kidnapping Matt – bloody obvious this is going to happen – you realise it should have formed a larger slice of the film, with Matt’s indifference – he’s dying, so what if he pisses off a psychopath, he’s got his own psychopath inside him already – getting into McCabe’s psyche enough that the stone-hearted killer admits he wishes the operation could have happened. Unfortunately, this sequence ends damply without effect and a dash of misplaced slapstick.

Bowel surgery is always tricky – all that excess gas…

I’m about all done. I could drone on a bit about the hospital ‘old wing’ set-piece or Frank turning into John McClane and inexplicably smashing into the hospital foyer on a motorbike, but it feels like I’d be padding out the write-up. The only question I have concerning the ‘old wing’ is McCabe’s decision to let Frank in. I’m not 100% sure why he does that but I was nodding off by this point anyway. Brian Cox is getting paid. His presence doesn’t add any weight to proceedings, could’ve been anyone in the role. Marcia Gay Harden is good support as Samantha; she twats McCabe with a propane tank which is unlikely but entertaining nonetheless.

The other strange thing is the beginning. Frank and Nate, (Erik King) his partner break into some place to steal medical information pertaining to bone marrow matches, tying up a security guard in the process. They instigate a computer search and find that McCabe is the only match. Why is any of that necessary? Wouldn’t the hospital initiate a match-search in the instance of life or death and this in turn would just as easily throw up McCabe’s name? Or does the system work differently; doesn’t it flag up felons or what?

Check your career isn’t in one of those, Andy…

Note to director: a scalpel is a very, very sharp instrument. It has to be for the precision cutting required to perform a surgical procedure. If a mental nutjob presses a scalpel into the throat of a hostage the blade will draw blood. A great deal of blood, probably. Lucky for you, Gay Harden’s acting sells the threat.

Idiotic, but somehow diverting if there’s nothing else.




It gets 2 Donor Cards out of 5.


Cheers, folk.

ThereWolf, June 2012

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About ThereWolf

I only come out at night... mostly...

7 responses to “Desperate Measures (1998)”

  1. Droid says :

    This is a film I wanted to like much more than I actually did. Fan of Keaton, and I like Garcia. And I enjoy silly thrillers like this. Alas, it didn’t work out. Too contrived and obvious. And it also felt a little off pacingwise. Not sure what. Just never seemed to get going.

  2. Just Pillow Talk says :

    Sounds eons better than John Q!!!!

  3. Jarv says :

    Don’t really feel this film at all. It’s an utter meh for me.

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