Barbet Schroeder is an unsung hero of modern cinema. Before producing Raúl Ruiz's oddball avant-garde thriller Shattered Image (1998), Schroeder put his directorial wits to what one of the best and least heralded action-thrillers of the late '90s: Desperate Measures.
This superbly crafted film is unafraid to use some very familiar ideas and premises. It starts out as the latest variation on The Silence of the Lambs (1991), with cagey cop Frank (Andy Garcia) visiting the evil, brilliant criminal Peter (Michael Keaton) in his maximum security cell.
As usual, the good guy needs something from the monster, but it is not a lead on some other psychopath. Peter, as it happens, is the only person in America whose bone marrow matches that of Frank's fast-dying son, Matt (Joseph Cross).
The biggest and easiest cliché of the modern thriller is the mirror relation between hero and villain – typically clinched in the corny moment when the latter yells to his double: "You are like me!" Schroeder transforms this dreary pas de deux into a consistently intriguing triad – shifting Frank, Peter and Matt into varying relations of sameness and difference, alliance and violence.
On the action plane, Desperate Measures focuses on Peter's masterly attempt to escape confinement once he has consented to the benevolent medical operation. The film's most brilliant coup is its setting – a hospital and prison connected by a single passageway. Schroeder's breathtaking grasp of the dramatic and visual possibilities of architectural space – its lines and volumes – evokes a version of John Woo's Hard Boiled (1992) re-fashioned by Peter Greenaway.
Many of the dazzling and thoughtful moves in Desperate Measures belong to its writer, David Klass. Here, as in the underrated Kiss the Girls (1997), Klass puts a fine philosophical spin on the congealed clichés of the thriller genre. His central topic is less the struggle between good and evil than a fundamental inquiry into what it is to be human.
What combination of genes, drives, physical characteristics, conscious and unconscious thoughts make up a person? How are we to meaningfully differentiate barbaric individuals from their civilised kin? Since Schroeder has often explored the strange, perverse, inhuman and monstrous aspects of behaviour (as in Reversal of Fortune, 1990), the fit between writer and director is perfect.
Desperate Measures is an utterly exciting movie that never lets up. The thrills are cut to the bone. Moments of game humour provide a liberating release. Schroeder is particularly skilled at taking an actor's usual routine and tweaking it into something fresh – as he does cannily here with Garcia's sweet noble-guy aura and Keaton's Batman-style impassivity.
Indeed, the sight of this most monstrous baddie crawling out of a sewer into the streets of Los Angeles at dawn, and then burning down the road to the tune of "Proud Mary", is paradoxically the most rousing feel good spectacle that has hit a cinema in ages.
© Adrian Martin May 1998