A 'Desperate' Bargain

Thriller bypasses timely issues in favor of mayhem

Michael Keaton's acting has taken a zigzag course, from the comedy of "Night Shift" and "Beetlejuice" to the drama of "Clean and Sober" and the thrills of two "Batman" adventures. He started the current season as the eager-beaver cop in "Jackie Brown," and now he's going for contrast with "Desperate Measures," playing one of his meanest characters yet.

Unfortunately for him - and moviegoers - the new picture is too facile and forgettable to mark a crest in his up-and-down career. Ditto for Andy Garcia, who's overdue for a hit but has stumbled into just the opposite this time.

Garcia plays a San Francisco policeman with a difficult problem: His young son has been diagnosed with a grave illness, and transplant surgery appears to be the only solution. Plunging into cyberspace for information on possible organ donors, he finds that the nearest choice is a notorious psychopath locked up in the local prison.

The criminal agrees to help, asking a few favors - library privileges, release from solitary confinement - in return. But he's not as altruistic as he appears, and no sooner does he enter the hospital than nasty surprises start springing from his bag of tricks. The rest of the movie is a series of chase sequences, pitting the fatherly hero against a crazed killer who'll stop at nothing to escape.

For a while, "Desperate Measures" shows signs of becoming a thoughtful thriller with timely overtones. The premise raises interesting questions related to contemporary medical procedures, embodied by a loving parent who seeks help from both high-tech treatments and the kindness of a hostile stranger whose biological makeup just happens to fit certain formulas. Like last year's "Gattaca" and "Critical Care," this movie spotlights the hopes and anxieties sparked by health technologies that can lose contact with the human needs they're meant to serve.

David Klass's screenplay shows only shortlived concern with these matters, though, soon leaving them behind for a nonstop barrage of cat-and-mouse suspense scenes. More problems arise from the acting. Keaton's character is an all-too-obvious rip-off of Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs," while Garcia never quite blends the policeman's conflicting traits - doting dad on one hand, fearless hero on the other - into a convincing whole.

The picture was directed by Barbet Schroeder, whose career has zigzagged even more than Keaton's, embracing unique documentaries ("Idi Amin Dada") and articulate dramas ("Reversal of Fortune") as well as overwrought messes like "Single White Female." It's no pleasure to report that "Desperate Measures" falls into the latter category - a squandered opportunity to explore important issues through popular moviemaking.

* Rated R. Contains scenes of violence and illness as well as harsh vulgarities.

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