John Q

Good intentions aside, “John Q.” is a heavy-handed drama about the horrors of HMO’s, an easy target for anyone who has had to deal with one. No one likes insurance companies and HMO’s, so it’s easy to rally the troops.

“John Q.” is so clever in its manipulation that it even pretends to give the troops what they want, an intense drama about one man’s fight against the greedy, uncaring hospital bureaucrats who are willing to let his son die. While audiences are in the moment, they may actually find all of this riveting. Ten minutes after the film ends, so does the buzz.

Then reality sets it. It doesn’t take long to realize how preposterous and grandstanding “John Q.” really is. The screenplay by James Kearns, making his debut, is a marriage between “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Falling Down,” a hostage drama about a man at the end of his rope. Unfortunately, the air is awfully thin up on Kearns’ soapbox, resulting in a lack of common sense and logic.

Most of the problems with “John Q.” would have been forgiven on Lifetime, where it wouldn’t have felt as big and self-important. On the big screen, little speeches become dull diatribes that don’t just make a point, they wear it down to a nub. Even with a terrific cast of actors, director Nick Cassavettes has a difficult time making any of this believable.

Denzel Washington, coming off his Oscar-nominated performance for “Training Day,” plays John Q. Archibald, a decent, hard working family man who attends church every Sunday with his wife Denise (Kimberly Elise) and his 10-year-old son Mike (Daniel E. Smith), followed by Mike’s Little League game.

John’s seemingly perfect life starts tumbling like dominoes. First his hours at the factory are cut back, forcing his wife to take a job to help make ends meet. They’re behind on their bills and feeling the stress of debt when Mike collapses on the field. When John is told by cardiologist Dr. Turner (James Woods) that Mike needs a new heart, John is comforted by the fact that he has insurance.

What John failed to take into consideration was that with a reduction in hours came a reduction in benefits, leaving him with only $20,000 to cover a $250,000 operation. Without a $75,000 down payment, hospital administrator Rebecca Payne (Anne Heche) won’t even consider putting Mike on the transplant list.

After exhausting all possibilities, John receives a call from Denise at the hospital. Unless he does something now, they’re going to send Mike home, where he will surely die. In an act of desperation, John storms the hospital, taking the emergency room and its occupants hostage. John swears he will start killing the hostages unless his son gets the transplant.

Of course the inevitable media circus sets up their tent in front of the hospital, making it difficult for hostage negotiator Grimes (Robert Duvall) and Police Chief Monroe (Ray Liotta) to do their jobs. While John deals with the hostages and his dying son inside, Grimes tries to stop Monroe and his SWAT team from getting trigger happy outside.

The problem with Kearns screenplay is that it asks us to accept John’s situation and solution absolutely. He starts off as a concerned father willing to do anything to save his son, which leads him to taking the hospital hostage. At that moment he goes from being the good guy to being the bad guy. He threatens to kill the hostages if action isn’t taken, yet we never really believe that this sincere man would kill anyone.

Since Kearns paints himself into a corner by making John an anti-hero, he has to compensate by painting the hospital administrators and police chief as monsters. The result is an obvious attempt to balance the scales, turning characters into caricatures. As written and played, Turner, Payne and Monroe are hiss-able.

Washington is extremely earnest as John Q., but he’s forced to say some of the worst dialogue in the movie, and even this brilliant actor has a difficult time making it sound authentic. Even John’s emotionally charged speech to his dying son feels manufactured. You may feel sympathetic, but on the ride home you’ll feel cheated and manipulated.

Cassavettes exhibits no shame when it comes to milking the moment. “John Q.” doesn’t just wear its sentiment on its sleeve, it takes out a billboard. Maybe Cassavettes thought the audience wouldn’t get the film’s message so he felt it necessary to constantly beat us over the head with it. After four or five knocks on the noggin, I was ready to call it quits.


Hostage drama John Q. wears heart on its sleeve


Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, James Woods, Anne Heche, Kimberly Elise, Ray Liotta, Daniel E. Smith. Directed by Nick Cassavettes. Rated PG-13. 118 Minutes.


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