This medical thriller begins with two crazed naked men escaping from an unmarked urban institutional building. One of them winds up in the Gramercy Hospital (NYC) Emergency Room under the care of the young Dr. Guy Luthan (Hugh Grant). The patient dies while exhibiting baffling symptoms and under suspicious circumstances. Dr. Luthan decides to investigate, against the advice of his boss, but with the assistance of ER nurse Jodie Trammel (Sarah Jessica Parker). Suddenly, police are breaking into his apartment and finding (obviously planted) cocaine. Luthan is fired by the hospital, his promising career apparently ruined by a faceless criminal conspiracy.

Still intrigued by the mystery patient, Luthan follows some street leads that take him to the Inferno-like caverns underneath Grand Central Station and the homeless people who live there. He is pursued by armed agents, is wounded, and wakes up in a hospital bed paralyzed from the neck down. Enter the prize-laden Dr. Lawrence Myrick (Gene Hackman), who explains to Luthan that he is trying to develop a medical procedure that will regenerate human nerve tissue and has been secretly using the homeless as guinea pigs. He rationalizes this practice on the basis of its huge potential benefits and tries to enlist Luthan on his side, explaining that his paralysis is temporary (but under Myrick's control) and in part an attempt to stir up Luthan's empathy for the patients who could be helped by Myrick's procedure if it is developed.

Of course, Luthan escapes from the bed. On the way out he encounters Myrick and his armed agents in the lobby, where there is one last round in the ethical debate before Myrick is accidentally killed by one of his henchman. Luthan's career is reconstituted, he is awarded a fellowship, and the film ends with Myrick's widow standing at the gate of the NYU School of Medicine giving Myrick's data to Luthan, saying that her husband was trying to do good but in the wrong way. She hopes that Luthan will use the data in the right way. Luthan smilingly enters a stone building with "Neurology" carved in the lintel.


The summary says it all, or most of it. This film (besides its wishful parallel to Hugh Grant's own recent stumble) is a pretty straightforward thriller with an important ethical question in the middle of it. In a twist on the usual sense of the phrase, is it right to use "extreme measures" in the pursuit of research breakthroughs? What are the acceptable human costs of medical research? In the film the debate is pretty well represented by a few lines. Myrick challenges: "If you could cure cancer by killing one person, wouldn't you have to do that?" "Those men are heroes." Luthan's response: "But you chose for them." and "You're a doctor, not God."

Hackman's acting saves this film. He is superb as a buttoned-down, highly competent "realist." He tempts Luthan and us logically with his numbers and emotionally with his paralyzed patients, but finally he is cold and out of touch with the rights-based ethics in the world around him. There probably are cultures based on more communal ethics whose members would not see the point of the argument, but it is our current agreement that individual rights weigh heavily against the demands made on them by social needs such as those that drive applied medical research.

We praise self-sacrifice, which has the energy of all the rights it yields, but except in wartime we do not systematically require individuals to sacrifice themselves. Medical advances have challenged this in the past and will continue to do so, but, as Myrick's widow's lines remind us, whatever benefits his research promised, we are not yet ready to pay his price.


Screenplay by Tony Gilroy; based on the novel by Michael Palmer.

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