Here’s a premise that practically defines the paradoxical Hollywood term “high concept”: A cop is looking for a bone-marrow donor to save his little boy, who has leukemia — and the only compatible donor is a sociopathic killer! Boy, can you beat that? Desperate Measures, which stars Andy Garcia as the driven cop and Michael Keaton as the latest Hannibal Lecter clone, is the kind of synthetic thriller that has to get by on style and attitude. Luckily, it has just about enough of both.
Primarily, the movie works as a showcase for Garcia and Keaton — two working-guy actors who were hot a few years ago and then, for some reason, cooled off. The paper-thin characters they’re playing don’t give them much help, but they manage to indulge in their respective specialties. Garcia’s frantic cop is almost demonically motivated; you feel he’s screened out everything but his boy’s health, and his relentlessness eventually turns into a kind of joke. Keaton, as he proved in Pacific Heights, can give good psycho — he’s at his spookiest when he’s immobile, tied down á la Lecter, taunting Garcia in an insinuating drawl that sounds vaguely Southern. (And I mean vaguely — accents are not Keaton’s strong point.)
The deal is that Keaton will donate his bone marrow and Garcia will pull strings to make the rest of Keaton’s life sentence a bit cushier. Keaton says no at first, but later changes his mind — presumably after he’s had time to figure out how to escape from the operating table. Which he does. The veins in Garcia’s forehead go into overdrive as he pleads with the feds not to kill Keaton: If the murderer dies, so does the boy. Meanwhile, the boy lies in a sterile tent like E.T., bleeding ominously from the nose and asking Dad cheerful questions like “If I die, will you forget me?”
It’s all shameless and plastic, but that didn’t stop me from liking Starship Troopers, and Desperate Measures, though not as gleefully cheesy as that big-bug saga, has its own pleasures. The movie’s design is certainly a lot sleeker than it had to be. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (who shot Dario Argento’s horror classic Suspiria) works in subtle shades of blue and gray, violated by the occasional bright dash of blood. The primary location, a San Francisco hospital that used to be a prison, is laid out like an escaped killer’s playpen — lots of hiding places and secret passages. (Keaton and Garcia are the only ones in the movie who know their way around; apparently nobody else bothered with those boring old blueprints.)
Barbet Schroeder, the Iranian-born and Sarbonne-educated director, has had two careers: an independent filmmaker-documentarian (1969-1987), and a Hollywood hired hand (1990-present). He’s at his best (Reversal of Fortune, Kiss of Death) when his sturdy, unobtrusive style supports a good script. Schroeder doesn’t have much of a script this time (screenwriter David Klass also did the equally manipulative Kiss the Girls), but he has the sense not to put too much weight on it.
He also has the sense to let his stars carry the film. Desperate Measures never achieves the twisted duality you might hope for in a Schroeder thriller — not much is made of the idea that the cop often seems crazier than the killer — but Garcia and Keaton fill in some of the blanks. Some critics have called the movie a waste of talent, but if you’re going to do the 2,000th rip-off of The Silence of the Lambs, you might as well get people who know what they’re doing.