Extreme Measures is much better than its trailer would lead anyone to expect. The promotional reel conjures a sub-ER medical melodrama, spiced with a murder mystery, and featuring an ill-at-ease, miscast Hugh Grant, working his eyebrows more frantically than ever.
In fact, Michael Apted's film is far closer to the horror genre, and to the paranoid conspiracy-theory drama popularised by TV's The X-Files. The opening scene is certainly striking, and disorienting: the camera swoops from the top floor of a building to the mean, grimy streets below, where two men, naked and afraid, suddenly burst out of a doorway.
So when the breezy but brilliant Dr. Luthan (Grant) begins his hospital shift, there is obviously something dark and deadly underlying the usual treatment of trauma cases. Bodies start disappearing, computer files have been mysteriously erased.
The trail leads to Myrick (Gene Hackman), a doctor so brilliant he clearly considers himself beyond law and morality.
The association of horror and terror with (as one critic put it) "vile bodies and bad medicine" has been a staple of cinema from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) to Lars von Trier's The Kingdom (1994). Extreme Measures gives this classic scenario some welcome twists, nuances and complications. Pandering to contemporary paranoias, it makes every single authority figure (doctor, cop or bureaucrat) a highly suspicious, if not downright ugly creature.
The social panorama of the film is equally interesting, taking us all the way from the chic dinner parties of the rich to a community of homeless people living underground. And it is not purely a tale of evil: Myrick is one of those tragic, morally ambiguous figures who uses monstrous means in order to achieve humanitarian ends.
Grant acquits himself surprisingly well as the innocent who leads us into this murky labyrinth. His lapses into flip, comic delivery are kept to an effective minimum. And he even brushes up well in hand-to-hand combat. Extreme Measures serves up an unusual brew of elements, but for me the experiment works.
© Adrian Martin July 1997