Published Feb 01, 2002If I have to sit through a mediocre Hollywood hero story, I take some consolation in being manipulated through "John Q.," whose ideas deserve to see the light of day, even if the execution is predictable sometimes to the point of being embarrassing. At least it's not another one of the war movies dominating the multiplexes in a cynical effort to keep the American public in a patriotic stupor. In fact, in a time where all media is pointed at America's "heroic" efforts abroad, "John Q." is somewhat daring in taking a critical look at the country's domestic policies.
The story centres around John Archibald (Denzel Washington), a downsized steel worker struggling to keep his family financially afloat when his son collapses suddenly of an undiagnosed heart condition. John then begins to wade through a bureaucratic nightmare when he's informed that his health insurance (recently changed to an HMO without his knowledge) will not cover the expenses of the lifesaving heart transplant operation the his son requires. He grows increasingly despairing as each appeal for help or leniency is rejected, and finally, in a moment of panic and desperation, takes the hospital's emergency room hostage.
For all it's noble intentions, it's really too bad that this couldn't be a better movie. The performances are all strong enough, given the cliched material and caricatured roles (the impersonal hospital administrator played icily by Anne Heche, the overpaid heart surgeon played sleazily by James Woods, the sympathetic police negotiator played crustily by Robert Duvall, the trigger-happy police chief played idiotically by Ray Liotta, and of course the heroic everyman played nobly by Denzel Washington). The main problem is the script, which clunkily shifts between hokey portraits of family togetherness and didactic diatribes on the sorry state of the United States' health care system. There is nothing in "John Q." that you don't see coming from a mile away. Every single moment is foreshadowed extensively and then played out beyond its natural conclusion, leaving nothing subject to interpretation. The good guys are untarnishably perfect (even during criminal actions, because of course John immediately wins the sympathies of his hostages over to his plight), and the bad guys are unfeeling and petty (until they too are won over by the noble cause). The film, with all the decent issues it raises, would have been so much more effective as a tragedy, but instead cops out with an implausible Hollywood ending that goes a long way to negate any import that the subject matter carried. Still, with all its flaws as a film, it made me darn happy to live in a place with universal health care and if people are going to insist on flocking to heart-warmingly mediocre movies, they may as well go to one that takes place in the real world and has a few important things to say.