Ethics & Public Policy Center

Desperate Measures

Published in EPPC Online on February 1, 1998



Like the unsuccessfully arty Deceiver, the unashamedly popular Desperate Measures by Barbet Schroeder is a film which begins by telling us the IQ—“over 150”—of its criminal protagonist, Peter McCabe (Michael Keaton). Oh dear. Once again we are in the presence of one of those criminal geniuses who are so seldom to be met with in real life but are as common as hairspray in Hollywood movies. In this case, the genius is not only a Hannibal Lecter-like predator, kept in isolation and strapped to a chair, but he is also the only tissue match on record for a little boy in urgent need of a bone marrow transplant, lest he die of leukemia. The little boy, Matthew (Joseph Cross) is the only son of a San Francisco police lieutenant, Frank Connor (Andy Garcia), whose wife died in a car crash. Frank, as we see over the opening credits when he breaks into FBI headquarters to search the Bureau’s data base for the tissue match, is willing to do anything to save his son’s life.

Obviously this is a high-concept movie, which means that the convict is going to escape and so confront Frank with the impossible situation of trying to ensure that the bad guy stays alive—they can’t take the transplant from a dead man—while he endangers both the public safety and Frank’s own police colleagues. So the concept is a little far-fetched—OK, a lot far-fetched. Still, it seems to raise some interesting questions about conflicting moral obligations. Or it might have raised them if it hadn’t made Frank a complete moral idiot, for whom the film’s putative dilemma scarcely exists. Never for a moment does he hesitate to endanger any and every life around him for the sake of his son. As his boss, Captain Cassidy (Brian Cox), says to him after he manages to get two colleagues shot: “How many people are going to have to die today so that kid of yours can live?”

Stupid question. As many as it takes, is the film’s implicit answer (though it diplomatically declines to give us a body count). Having raised a difficult moral issue, the picture then proceeds to ignore it, confident in the assumption (we must suppose) that the audience will cheer Frank on to ever more absurd heights of folly and criminality for the sake of his little boy—who is himself much more mature and philosophical about his prospective death than his guilt-riddled, manic old man. This Frank Connor guy is one sick puppy, but, as the admiring and like-minded McCabe puts it, “the man has a goal and he is determined to achieve it,” which is all that seems to matter. The dawning realization that significant numbers of my fellow Americans are apparently being expected to sympathize with Connor for this quality that he shares with the killer, and to applaud his total lack of a sense of social responsibility, is the scariest movie-going experience I have so far had this year.

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