EXTREME MEASURES (Castlerock 1996) Warner Home Video
One of the truly underrated great thrillers from the 1990’s, director, Michael Apted’s Extreme Measures (1996) is a bone-chilling, bare-knuckled medical mystery, race against time with more twists and turns than a carnival dark ride and just as exhilarating. Based on Michael Palmer’s 1991 best seller of the same name, Extreme Measures was originally intended as a star vehicle for Alec Baldwin. For whatever reasons, the project was repeatedly delayed – long enough for Baldwin’s interest in it to fade, and Hollywood’s first round of interest in Baldwin as a big screen movie star to considerably cool after a rather lackluster spate of films that failed to generate enough buzz to keep his momentum going. The movie was then pitched to Simian Films, a subsidiary at Castle Rock Entertainment, established by Hugh Grant and his then-gal/pal, Elizabeth Hurley. Grant, who had been kicking around the industry since the mid-eighties, but whose international appeal did not materialize until 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, had begun his acting career with serious ambitions. His foray into comedy typecast Grant as a featherweight leading man, a reputation he hoped to reset by appearing in this suspense-laden drama.
Tony Gilroy’s screenplay eventually ironed out the kinks and misgivings Grant had about appearing in the movie. Indeed, Palmer’s investigative hero was rougher around the edges than the congenial Grant preferred. For nearly a year, Gilroy toiled on rewrites that, in tandem, included un-credited input from William Goldman. Along the way, the writers ‘apologized’ to Palmer for the way they had sincerely deviated from his novel. In reply, Palmer issued a conciliatory statement that read in part, “Hugh Grant has turned the protagonist into a character he can live with, but the nature of the character hasn't changed. The more I think about it, the more it seems like my book.” The production was split between location work in Toronto and New York City, director, Apted challenged in his collaborations with Grant and Hurley, who were, in fact, the film’s de facto producers. “It's not something I'd recommend,” Apted later surmised, “…however genial the people are.... it was tricky. We had the same agendas, mercifully, so it was all right... but producers are powerful. And actors are powerful these days. So, to have the double whammy up there, it makes your job harder.” In reply, Hurley later admitted, “I hadn't realized how fragile a film could be. I did end up being very hands-on. I ended up doing much more than I had expected to. I didn't realize how easy it was to really not make the film you set out to make.... I think having to concentrate very, very hard on every department was a shock.”
Extreme Measures stars Hugh Grant as a young and brilliant emergency room doctor in residence, Guy Luthan. However, Guy’s future in medicine is brought into question when he begins to investigate the sudden death of one Claude Minkins (Shaun Austin-Olsen), a homeless man who died on Guy’s watch and whose body has since mysteriously vanished before any autopsy can be performed to establish a plausible cause of death. Soon, Guy begins to suspect a conspiracy is taking place right under his nose at the hospital – one in which innocent healthy patients are being experimented on for the purpose of stem cell research. Guy’s key suspect is noted neurosurgeon, Dr. Lawrence Myrick (Gene Hackman), a man too readily available to provide ulterior motives and theories. Unable to quantify his suspicions, Guy engages nurse, Jodie Trammel (Sarah Jessica Parker) to access classified files on his behalf. But Guy is discovered by his superior, Dr. Jeffrey Manko (Paul Guilfoyle) and placed on suspension instead. Now, Guy realizes that the forces at work are not merely engaged in a cover up. They are also conspiring to have him killed.
Two men, hired by Myrick, including ex-FBI Agent, Frank Hare (David Morse) tail Guy into the bowels of the New York subway system. Narrowly escaping his attackers and being run down by a fast advancing train, Guy begs his sponsor, Dr. Judith Gruszynski (Debra Monk) to be heard. He is not paranoid. He is in peril. Alas, no one believes Guy, not even Jodie, who first appeared, at least, empathetic to his search for the truth. As it turns out, both Frank and Jodie have their reasons for maintaining the cover-up; Frank, out of guilt for his son, who was paralyzed in a car accident, and Jodie, whose brother is also bound to a wheel chair, but hopeful for a cure. Naively believing in Myrick, Jodie drugs Guy, who later awakens in a hospital bed, paralyzed from the neck down. Myrick lies to Guy – that he was involved in a terrible accident that affected his spine. To test Guy’s fidelity to his cause, Myrick inquires what would he do to walk again. Tearfully, Guy replies, “Anything.” Days pass. Then, suddenly, Guy realizes he is able to move his hand to ward off an errant fly. Amazed by his uncanny recovery, Guy is approached by Jodie who reveals to him he was being kept artificially paralyzed on an intravenous drip she has since, quietly, canceled.
Jodie reveals the ugly truth to Guy; that Myrick has been secretly performing spinal experiments on the homeless, all of whom have died thus far, in an attempt to find a cure for paralysis. Guy attempts to sneak out of the hospital. He is subdued by Frank, and Myrick now tries to sway Guy into joining his team, telling him that his ‘test subjects’ are actually heroes. Killing a few to save millions is well worth the sacrifice. Guy admits, while there is some truth in what Myrick says, Myrick’s victims did not choose to give up their lives for the sake of this greater good. This makes Myrick a murderer. In a moment of distraction, Guy and Frank wrestle for Frank’s gun and Myrick is accidentally shot in their struggle, dying on the floor. Exonerated of any wrong doing and restored to his work at the hospital, Guy is made a bequest of Myrick’s research by his widow, Ruth (Nancy Beatty) who tells Guy, "My husband was trying to do a good thing, but in the wrong way". Guy proceeds towards the Neurology Building where he is now working.
Extreme Measures is a sobering thriller that asks and answers its own inquiry regarding ethics in medicine. Director, Apted manages to create and sustain an ominous sense of foreboding throughout the entire movie. We are drawn into Guy’s nervous speculations from the start and forced to reconsider his, and our own, growing paranoia. Gilroy’s screenplay makes its points, but never dwells on any of them and delivers top notch thrills – never allowing the tension to subside, but constantly evolving the narrative to its climactic showdown. Taut and compelling, Extreme Measures is required viewing. Alas, at the time of its release, despite a strong opening weekend that placed it in the #2 slot, and glowing reviews from both Siskel and Ebert, the picture was not a success at the box office. Difficult to ascertain the reasons why it failed to gel with audiences in 1994. All the elements for a Hitchcockian thrill ride are present and accounted for and the acting by all can scarcely be better. John Bailey’s cinematography is stylish and slick, contrasting the gritty streets, populated by the homeless, with the posh digs of doctors, and antiseptic conditions of the hospital and private institute where Myrick conducts his experiments. Extreme Measures was, and remains a movie far more deserving of our renewed respect and viewing. A Blu-ray would certainly do the picture justice.
For now, Warner Home Video’s DVD exhibits adequate image quality. The anamorphic widescreen image has been nicely rendered with rich, fully saturated colors, solidly rendered contrast levels and a considerable amount of fine detail evident throughout. Age-related artifacts persist, but do not distract. A slight hint of edge enhancement also intrudes but not to egregious levels. Certain scenes contain amplified film grain that has been transferred here as digital grit. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital, aggressive and enveloping. Still, we would sincerely petition the Warner Archive to consider re-issue Extreme Measures on Blu-ray. Despite many alterations to Palmer’s novel, this is a fine movie and an intelligently made thriller. There are NO extras. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)