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February 19, 2002

John Q goes public about health care crisis in US


John Q

Directed by Nick Cassavetes

114 minutes, rated PG-13


Screenwriters seem to find that when their hero is faced with danger, it's best to surround him with as many stereotypes as possible for protection. Think about the rainbow coalition of bus passengers in Speed, or the every-single-kind-of-white-guy-we-could-find troops in Saving Private Ryan. It seems that the writers of John Q had the same fears for the safety of Denzel Washington. When John Q. Archibald (Denzel Washington) takes a Chicago emergency room hostage in order to procure a heart transplant for his dying son, he gets saddled with a similarly crappy group of formulaic characters as his hostages. Although John Q starts out as a promising story about the love of parents for their son and the failings of a private medical system, it collapses under the weight of too much clichéd writing.

Washington is too good for most of the films he's starred in over the past five years, and this one is no exception. Even in Training Day, for which he recently received a best actor Oscar nomination, the conclusion turns it into a gratuitous action flick complete with Russian mafia. However, Washington has an ability to display his mastery of the acting craft while remaining very inventive in the moment. For this reason, he rises above the material and seems to be working by himself in a room full of amateurs. Besides an engaging performance by Kimberly Elise, who plays Washington's wife, Denzel is the only capable thing in the film.

John Q. is a struggling factory worker who falls on hard times when his hours at the plant are cut short and his car is repossessed. However, he finds solace in his loving wife and 10-year-old son, Mike. There is a nice chemistry among the actors in the family and the audience quickly becomes invested in their bond. Things quickly get worse for the Archibalds and continue that way when Mike collapses at a little league game and needs a heart transplant. John's insurance policy doesn't cover the experimental procedure and there is an initial $75,000 fee for Mike's name to be put on the donors list. The film then slips into a long sequence when the viewer's heartstrings are pulled in every direction as the community pulls together for Mike, even when the government won't. As sappy as it gets, Elise and Washington execute it very well, and their drive to keep their son alive is absorbing.

Of course, time runs out for John and, under extreme pressure to do something, he takes the hospital's chief heart surgeon (James Woods) hostage along with all the patients in the ER who weren't fast enough to get out in time. This is where the script totally falls apart. John is locked in the hospital with a pregnant couple in labor; a Spanish nanny who can't speak English; a timid nurse on her first day of work; a fat, lazy, but loveable security guard; Eddie Griffin; and a rich white man who calls Griffin "the black guy." All the pieces are in place for comic relief and trite, boring subplots that kill time while John tries to get a heart for his son. The script fails to handle all the components it sets up for itself because of the way it consistently wastes time. The screenwriting is lazy and burdensome because it recycles information to the point of insignificance. Consider how the handsome new reporter who "has to get the story" is introduced. John spends five minutes explaining how he is going to release three of the hostages. We watch John unlock the door and let three hostages out. The hostages run to the safety of the police. Then we cut to a live newscast where the reporter says, "John Q. has just released three hostages into the safety of the police." The film becomes a struggle for the viewer because he is constantly thirsty for new, unpredictable insight into the story.

I kept waiting for Washington to start yelling, "Attica! Attica!" In fact, I was wondering if screenwriter James Kearns had Dog Day Afternoon playing on a loop while he wrote John Q. Despite the similarities between the two films, especially glaring when the public and the hostages grow to love the criminal that threatens their lives, Kearns fails at creating a focused screenplay. There are constant arguments going on between the cops, the hospital staff, and the media, but all of it is hackneyed bickering that takes away from John and his family, the only characters the viewer has been fashioned to care about. The film spins itself around in circles and comes to a slow, unsteady stop.

There is an attempt in John Q to send a message about the sad state of health care in the country. The hostages sit in the waiting area and give point-counterpoints in dialogue that would only occur on CNN, not a room with a guy pointing a gun at you. However, Washington saves this message from falling flat by not simply ranting, but actually showing us the frustration he feels from the unfair circumstances that surround him. John Q is tired material that takes an exciting premise and draws its audience away from it with a handful of clichés. John Q attempts to rescue itself with a highly sensitive political message, but in the end it can only be partially revived by its redoubtable leading man.