By Rob Blackwelder
From its very first scene, "John Q" feels as if it's designed to put a choke leash around your neck so director Nick Cassavetes can give it a good, hard yank whenever he wants you to feel something.
In this opening scene we watch a pretty blonde in a white BMW passing cars on a winding mountain road with a double yellow line. I'm sure I don't have to tell you what's coming, but Cassavetes toys with the viewer, dragging out a couple close calls to make your heart race before -- whammo! Squashed blonde.
What does this have to do with a movie about factory worker Denzel Washington taking over an emergency room at gunpoint to get his dying son a heart transplant? You guessed it -- the girl's an organ donor. But "John Q" doesn't get back to her until 10 minutes before the end of the movie. Cassavetes just puts it at the beginning for shock value.
Afterwards he introduces us to John Q. Archibald (Washington), a struggling blue collar guy and stand-up father whose factory job has been cut down to 20 hours a week, thus disqualifying him from full insurance coverage. But John doesn't find this out until his 9-year-old son (Daniel E. Smith) collapses during a Little League game. Once he's rushed to the hospital and stabilized, the inimically blunt doctor (James Woods) tells John and his wife (Kimberly Elise) that the boy's overworked heart is three times its proper size and he'll die without a transplant -- which is no longer covered by John's HMO.
"You might want to make this a happy time and say goodbye," says the cartoonishly callous hospital administrator played by Anne Heche.
Yank! Yank! Booo! Sssss!
It's about this point that the film's loud, exploitive, melodramatic soundtrack kicks in (Yank! Yank!), ruining several sincere scenes of John and his wife selling furniture, accepting charity at church and applying for Medicaid, hoping to scratch together a $75,000 down payment on the $250,000 operation.
But Cassavetes is just getting warmed up. Once John gives up on proper channels and starts waving a gun around the hospital emergency room, you have to put up with...
1) A "shoot first, ask questions later" police chief (Ray Liotta) showboating his tough-on-crime stance for his political career (Boooo!).
2) Narration by an super-suntanned tabloid TV newsman who taps into the hospital's security cameras and declares "This is my white Bronco!" (Sssss!)
3) The absurdity of crowds outside the police barricades cheering John on as if they're at a college football game.
And 4) an only-in-the-movies comic relief hostage (Eddie Griffin), probably added to the script after some studio suit complained, "Does this have to be so depressing?"
Meanwhile, in the hospital's ICU, John's wife and son, and all the doctors and nurses, are somehow unaware that hostages have been taken in another part of the building until a sympathetic police negotiator (Robert Duvall) comes to ask the wife to talk John down. When she refuses, Cassavetes inserts a pregnant pause so you can cheer without missing any dialogue.
If this review sounds harsh, it's only because there was so much potential here, and it made me angry to see it thrown away in such a crass, blatantly manipulative way. Denzel Washington gives the kind of engrossing and powerful performance you expect from him, culminating in a scene in which he thinks he's doomed and kneels by his son's hospital bed, trying to impart a lifetime of fatherly advice all at once.
If the rest of "John Q" was half as sincere and self-possessed as this brief moment, it might have been a brilliant and moving film. Its heart is in the right place (no pun intended) and its message is true -- HMOs are inherently evil.
But this movie plays the audience for chumps every bit as much as HMOs do, going for easy indignant cheers, easy righteous solutions and easy Hollywood feel-good moments. It's designed to make you feel like a miscreant if you question anything about it and don't get swept up in its tidal wave of emotional artifice.
But I'm not a miscreant, I'm just a moviegoer with a mind of my own. So tell me a story, sell me on its emotional veracity, but go about it honestly. Don't slap me in the face to make me angry, don't rub onions in my eyes to make me cry and don't insult my intelligence by reducing the complexities of human sentiment to Pavlovian button pushing.
Run time: 116 mins
In Theaters: Friday 15th February 2002
Box Office USA: $71.0M
Box Office Worldwide: $102.2M
Distributed by: New Line Cinema
Production compaines: Evolution Entertainment, New Line Cinema, Burg/Koules Productions
Contactmusic.com: 1.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 23%
Fresh: 30 Rotten: 101
IMDB: 7.0 / 10
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Starring: Denzel Washington as John Quincy Archibald, Robert Duvall as Frank Grimes, Anne Heche as Rebecca Payne, Kimberly Elise as Denise Archibald, Daniel E. Smith as Mike Archibald, Larissa Laskin as Dr. Ellen Klein, James Woods as Dr. Raymond Turner, Ethan Suplee as Guard Max Conlin, Shawn Hatosy as Mitch Quigley, Heather Wahlquist as Julie Bird, Ray Liotta as Chief Gus Monroe, Eddie Griffin as Lester Matthews, Dina Waters as Debby Utley, Shera Danese as Wife of Heart Transplant Patient
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