Some films have wonderful concepts that feel fresh and original and compelling, whilst others sound, simply, awful. Unfortunately, Desperate Measures fits into the latter, but the film itself is so much better than the idea would have you believe. The setup involves a detective’s son in immediate need of a bone marrow transplant, but a compatible donor cannot be found. The detective breaks into the FBI to access their database where he finds a match—an extremely dangerous murderer with a high IQ who has repeatedly escaped. The risks of the transplant, which are already high, skyrocket with the possibility of a prisoner escape, but the criminal in question is yet to agree to undergo the procedure.
If it sounds far-fetched, that’s because it is, yet this is an action movie, not a drama. We all know what is coming. The criminal will agree to undergo the surgery in order to facilitate an escape, which will lead to a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase. The added odds are the criminal cannot be killed, as his demise would ruin his bone marrow and therefore sentence the detective’s child to death, so the detective is forced into conflict: capture the criminal but prevent the other cops from killing him. It is here that the film’s relatively conceited concept comes good.
The detective is played with flair by Andy Garcia, and although he is believable as a police officer, he is at his best as a father. The emotional aspects of the scenes between a father and his dying son are not subtle, but in no way should they be. A parent would do anything and everything to save their child’s life, as is witnessed here. Garcia’s detective may have a lot of advantages—the resources and force of the police, his training, a gun—but that does not prevent his performance evoking empathy. It is a solid and likely underrated turn from Garcia.
The convicted criminal and co-lead is played with relish by Michael Keaton, and his performance is the fire on which this film burns bright. He throws himself into this role and demonstrates his worth as a true character actor as well as a movie star. Marcia Gay Harden is the surgeon who gets tangled up in the escalating situation, and Brian Cox also appears without surprise, as it seems he was contractually obligated to appear in every other action film from the nineties, though he puts on a good show.
The realism on which this film is built is in part flawed and fantastic, but similarly in places very authentic indeed. Keaton breaking his own thumb in preparation of his escape, for example, is a brutal moment demonstrating his character’s strength of will. Small moments like this add depth to the film, which combined with the relentless pace and ratcheting tension make it as fresh and original and compelling as any high-concept narrative.
Desperate Measures is not an overly-intelligent film, but it should not be dismissed as trite action nonsense. The questions it raises of nature versus nurture are intriguing, though underdeveloped, but show director Barbet Schroeder exploring more than a simple jailbreak narrative. It is not perfect, but it is far from a bargain bin throwaway, and though it is corny and cliché at times, it is a hell of a lot of fun. It does exactly what an action movie should do, which is put a big grin on your face as you perch on the edge of your seat. Desperate Measures is a white-knuckle ride that is well worth a little of your time.