The title of "Desperate Measures" is supposed to refer to the lengths two diametrically opposed men will take to get what they want, but it more accurately reflects what audiences should take to escape from the movie.
By turns depressing, laughable and shockingly dumb, this may be the one movie where a grisly bone-marrow transplant is a visual relief.
Starring Michael Keaton, in what is commonly referred to as a "bold dramatic departure," and Andy Garcia, who should know better, "Desperate Measures" wants to be so many things that, of course, it winds up being nothing at all.
As a psychological thriller, action drama, dark comedy and contemporary portrait of pure evil it fails miserably. As an example of why lumping all of those genres together will only end in grief, it's a textbook case.
Keaton plays Peter McCabe, a homicidal maniac serving life in prison. He is approached by FBI agent Frank Connor (Garcia) to donate bone marrow for his 9-year-old son, who is dying of leukemia, after a computer search reveals that McCabe is the boy's only match. McCabe balks, relishing the idea of being able to kill someone without even leaving his cell, but upon meeting young Matt Connor (Joseph Cross), he changes his mind.
When McCabe is transferred to a prison hospital for the operation, though, it becomes clear that the only transplant he intends to take part in is his own, from prison to freedom. McCabe escapes (with a singularly masochistic form of ingenuity), and Connor is suddenly thrust into a very interesting position: He must catch McCabe, but he must keep him alive, because a dead man's marrow is useless.
A chase ensues, with the cat and mouse often working in unlikely cahoots, as Connor tries to keep his colleagues in the San Francisco police force from taking McCabe out.
Laid out on paper like that, it's possible to see the initial appeal of "Desperate Measures," which was directed with a surprising lack of artfulness or subtlety by Barbet Schroeder, he of such exquisite perversities as "Kiss of Death" and "Reversal of Fortune."
It might have worked as a twisty psychological cat's cradle about the characters' shifting motivations and inner contradictions, but for some reason, Schroeder decided to make it a vroom-vroom movie, complete with fireballs, car chases and a collapsing skywalk.
If there is a sight currently on screens more ridiculous than Andy Garcia mounting a motorcycle, crashing through a plate-glass window and chasing a limping Keaton through the halls of a hospital -- all with crash helmet firmly in place -- I'm hard pressed to think of it.
More examples of this film's inexplicably sterling pedigree include the estimable Brian Cox as Connor's burly, surly boss (see him in "The Boxer"; he has more to do) and Marcia Gay Harden as the pediatric oncologist who apparently has no other patients on her watch than Connor's kid, for whom she drops everything to provide succor and platelets. (To be fair, Keaton, buffed to Big House proportions, manages some deadpan dignity as a man who will withstand any amount of pain to get what he wants.)
"Desperate Measures" isn't helped by the fact that the little boy at stake is preternaturally self-possessed. His sunny attitude and pluck ("Dad, he's tired, you can get him!") only make him more grating by the minute.
McCabe doesn't appreciate being held hostage to the emotional blackmail of this kid, and by the end of "Desperate Measures," most filmgoers will be forgiven for thinking the maniac has a point.
Starring Michael Keaton, Andy Garcia
Directed by Barbet Schroeder
Released by TriStar Pictures
Rated R (violence and language)
Sun Score: *
Pub Date: 1/30/98