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Imitation of Life

For better or worse, Barbet Schroeder is another one of those French directors who spent his youth watching Hollywood genre movies, over and over, in the smoky confines of the Paris Cinematheque. By the time he was big enough to find Jerry Lewis a genius, he had also absorbed everything Fuller, Walsh, Mann, Hawks and Hitchcock had turned out, and he was duly smitten.

This apparently qualifies Barbet Schroeder to make bad imitations of American movies with certain post-New Wave pretensions tacked on to them.

Case in point: Desperate Measures. On the surface, this is a standard action thriller with a preposterous high-concept plot. A noble San Francisco cop (the ever-noble Andy Garcia) is desperate to find a bone-marrow donor for his nine-year-old son, who will otherwise die of cancer. The only compatible candidate, Garcia discovers, is the se-rial killer of the week (Michael Keaton), yet another devious monster with a 150-plus IQ who's serving a life sentence in maximum security. Do you envision another bloody psychopath escape even as Dr. Marcia Gay Harden leans over the operating table, huge syringe in hand? Anyone who doesn't envision it doesn't know fava beans about the tedious string of unreasonable facsimiles our old pal Hannibal Lecter hath wrought.

"McCabe is sharp," a police colleague warns Garcia. "He likes to fuck with you." Okay, so what else is new?

Now, Monsieur Schroeder has made six straight movies in Hollywood, including Reversal of Fortune, Single White Female and Kiss of Death, but he isn't prepared to throw his early-career credentials as a European Art House Intellectual into the trash just yet. So Desperate Measures also bursts at the seams with pseudo-existential subtext. To wit: Garcia's Frank Connor is a good guy, but his frenzied pursuit of Keaton's evil Peter McCabe allegedly begins to turn him into McCabe's obsessive twin. Connor can't kill the killer when he escapes, because that would taint his marrow, there could be no operation, and the little boy would die. So the hero basically lets McCabe kill everybody else instead--uniformed fellow cops, assorted hospital types, SWAT-team sharpshooters stuffed into air ducts, what have you. Both men, the French philosopher would have us believe, are committed to the psychopath's survival at any cost.

Little matter that almost nothing else makes logical sense. Schroeder and writer David Klass (no stranger to noble cops or lunatics on the loose, he also wrote Kiss the Girls) simply ignore the realities of the street and the darker instincts of the criminal mind. Are we really expected to believe that an anonymous cop like our Frank here can move heaven and earth and effect the transfer to a hospital of one of the most dangerous inmates in California? Can we take that cop seriously when, in the heat of a chase through the streets, he pauses to don a motorcycle helmet? What moviegoer in his right mind would accept the notion that the brutal McCabe, a fellow with eight or nine cold-blooded murders on his resume, would draw the line at a little boy? Are we also to believe that a multiple murderer can breeze into the prison library whenever he damn well feels like it, crank up the Internet and have a look at the floor plan of the very hospital from which he plans to escape?

Evidently, such trifles matter not in this brand of Franco-American moviemaking. Nor does the fact that the semi-doomed kid (Joseph Cross) seems to have the intellect of a baby Einstein and an insight into the eternal equal to, say, Jean-Paul Sartre. M. Schroeder, movie lover that he is, also feels compelled to install the 168th San Francisco car chase in cinematic history since Steve McQueen first essayed Russian Hill in his souped-up Mustang.

To say it plainly, we've seen every frame before--from the Lecter-cloning to the maverick cop bit, to the dying kid element, to the hospital-in-jeopardy business, to the sight of vehicles rampaging over the expressways. Truth be told, maybe Barbet Schroeder has seen one American movie too many.

--Gallo

Desperate Measures.
Screenplay by David Klass. Directed by Barbet Schroeder. With Michael Keaton, Andy Garcia, Marcia Gay Harden and Joseph Cross.

 
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