The medical thriller Extreme Measures concerns itself with a neurologist who kidnaps homeless men and conducts experiments on their spinal cords. Ah, the stark realism of these thrillers! The movie is borderline preposterous, but it’s sturdy and professional, and I surprised myself by having a pretty good time with it. It’s tightly constructed, and it takes time to unfold smoothly; if it’s never as scary or provocative as it means to be, at least it’s straightforward and satisfying.
Hugh Grant, as the doctor hero Guy Luthan, provides one of the movie’s more pleasurable surprises by proving he has the chops for a Hollywood thriller. Intelligent yet never arrogant (he’s a model of British self-deprecation), Grant is easily the politest thriller hero in years; when he isn’t saying “Please” and “Thank you ever so much,” he’s apologizing profusely for taking people’s time. Grant’s hesitant persona, sometimes annoying in other roles, works here as a ’90s-guy tribute to James Stewart’s uncertain heroes in Hitchcock’s films.
The script, adapted by Tony Gilroy (Dolores Claiborne) from a Michael Palmer novel, follows Guy as he hunts for information about a homeless man who turned up in Guy’s hospital with mysterious symptoms. The man dies and then vanishes; it becomes clear that someone powerful wants Guy discredited and, if necessary, dead. You’ve seen a lot of this before. But then Extreme Measures turns into an ethical thriller. An ambitious (i.e., mad) neurologist, Dr. Lawrence Myrick (Gene Hackman), has been swiping homeless people and tinkering with them in his secret lab. His goal is to cure paralysis by regenerating damaged nerves, and he believes he’s on the brink of a breakthrough. Your take on Myrick’s mission depends on which description you prefer: “His methods are barbaric, but his motives are good” or “His motives are good, but his methods are barbaric.”
There is a difference. And there is no better actor than Gene Hackman at suggesting the shifting gray tones of morality. When Hackman delivered a long and quite persuasive speech defending his actions, I found myself nodding in agreement with some of it. That’s the mark of a great actor. But then Grant counters with his own speech denouncing the experiments, and I could hear people in the audience agreeing with Grant out loud. I wonder if they’d have done the same if Hackman, not Grant, had been allowed the last word.
But this isn’t a philosophy film; it’s a Hollywood thriller, and it comes down firmly on the side of decency. That’s fine — we know early on that we’re not in Vertigo territory. The ethical questions are there, quite frankly, to restore Hugh Grant’s moral glow after his unfortunate 1995 comedy What Do I Get for Fifty Dollars? Devotees of Freudian symbology will notice that director Michael Apted stages a prolonged and spooky odyssey for Grant inside a dark, wet tunnel. Elizabeth Hurley, the film’s producer, may have appreciated the irony.