[Serious spoilers ahead — not that I’m implying you’ll want to see this movie.]
When you consider it, it’s really quite an accomplishment for a movie to offend on more than one level. Extreme Measures, for example, laughs in the face of lesser films that merely bore the viewer with a predictably plot or forgettable characters. Extreme Measures features both flaws, naturally — you don’t mess with the classics — but it doesn’t stop there. Oh no.
Hugh Grant is Dr. Guy Luthan, and as this flick opens he faces the kind of melodramatic dilemma TV’s ER usually handles so well: With limited hospital resources, do you save a wounded cop or the junkie who shot him? Luthan chooses the less seriously injured cop, which disappoints Sarah Jessica Parker‘s Nurse Jodie Trammel — setting up the moral worldviews of these two major characters in a way that the film will totally betray later. For a movie that purports to be about individual morality, this is unforgivable — but it’s indicative of the wishy-washyness of the whole movie.
Through some flat and suspenseless shenanigans that involve every cliché of the thriller genre, Luthan discovers that famous neurologist Professor Myrick (Gene Hackman, whose presence cannot save this mess) has been doing some research into healing spinal injuries. Said research has involved kidnapping homeless men off the streets of Manhattan, severing their spines, and trying to fix ’em up again.
As the turgid plot plods on, we’re alerted to the fact that Luthan is getting closer to his goal by the numerous surreptitious appearances of — *gasp* — people in wheelchairs! See, Myrick is being assisted by other medical folks and by a cop and an FBI agent (David Morse, so wonderful in Contact and wasted here), all of whom have someone beloved who is paralyzed and wheelchair-bound.
So here’s an excellent point to take offense at: The only rationale we are offered for the illegal and shockingly immoral behavior of Myrick’s minions is the fact that someone each of them loves would benefit from this research. The implication being that anyone of us in the same situation would do exactly the same. Well… I don’t think that’s a fair assumption.
There’s a truly offensive scene at the end of Extreme Measures that takes this one step further. An employee of Myrick’s Mengeleian hospital — a woman in a wheelchair — is present when Luthan shoots and kills Myrick. The woman stares at Luthan with eyes wide and teary, lip quivering, her expression asking, Why did you kill this wonderful man? This wonderful man who was torturing other healthy human beings for her benefit.
Is the viewer meant to accept that people in wheelchairs would be willing to sacrifice other people to help themselves? Perhaps there are some people like that — but the concept is much too universal and casually thrown about in Extreme Measures. Okay, I’m lucky — I can walk. Maybe being a paraplegic or quadriplegic is too hideous for words — maybe there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for a cure. So, I say to this movie, convince me of that. Show me how awful life is when you’re sitting in a wheelchair. Spare me none of the indignities. Make me empathize with these characters and understand what would make someone throw in their lot with the depraved Myrick. There’s your story!
Ah, but that would be a complicated character film, not a slam-bang thriller. But Extreme Measures isn’t very thrilling anyway. Instead it insults not only its viewers but a group of people who probably don’t need any more grief.