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John Q.

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Release: 2002, New Line
Starring: Denzel Washington, James Woods, Anne Heche, Robert Duvall, Ray Liotta, Kimberly Elise, Eddie Griffin
Director: Nick Cassavetes
MPAA Rating: [PG-13] violence, language
Genre: Drama/Thriller

A desperate father (Washington) holds a hospital's staff and patients hostage in order to get an emergency operation for his son.

What's Good
Denzel Washington's performance

What's Bad
glaringly one-sided and full of propaganda
a continuous stream of obnoxious preaching at the audience
almost all of the characters are poorly designed stereotypes

Reviewer: Andrew Manning, Contributing Editor: Matthew Leary (02/02)

Next to Big Tobacco, healthcare providers are probably the most vilified industry in all of corporate America. There are hordes of consumers out there who pony up for minimal HMO plans, yet cry foul when their health insurance doesn't pay for everything under the sun. They believe complete coverage is a God-given right, and the phrase "you get what you pay for" is thrown out the window. John Q. gives a big voice to such people, arming them with boisterous ammunition against capitalism and free enterprise. But the movie is hardly an exercise in the truth--instead, it's shameless anti-HMO propaganda, full of heavy-handed, one-sided preaching without solutions.

The only thing that makes John Q. worth a watch is Denzel Washington's performance. As the aptly named John Q. Archibald, he effortlessly comes across as an Everyman caught in a dire situation. When his son is in need of an emergency heart transplant, he is unable to get the operation due to inadequate health coverage. Faced with impossibly high medical costs and enough red tape to choke a horse, he resorts to desperate measures: he takes the hospital staff and patients hostage and demands that his son receive the life saving operation. The situation escalates into an event of epic proportions: the law descends upon John and the facility like Waco, Texas; the corporate suits scramble to protect their image and money; and the public rallies behind a desperate father in a unified outcry.

Washington's performance is thoroughly engaging and often touching. But that's where the film's merits end. His co-stars are all stuck in ridiculously stupid and cliche roles that hammer away one idea: big business is the devil. Anne Heche is the evil hospital director who tells John his kid can't have the heart transplant; James Woods is the doctor who sympathizes, but is such a tool of the system that he feels helpless to do anything; Robert Duvall is the crusty old hostage negotiator who should have been put out to pasture years ago; and Ray Liotta is the crazy police chief who would rather bust a cap in John than talk him down.

Meanwhile, the story is pure propaganda, complete with an annoying montage of media personalities who are more than eager to tell you what's wrong with the system. The fact that John is such a sympathetic character demonstrates just how biased the story is: where else but the movies would audiences cheer for a desperate gunman threatening to murder innocent people in a hospital? Even those who agree with the socialist mantra of the film will likely be put off by the preachy tone with which the message is delivered. And for all its soapboxing, the movie never offers real solutions to the problems it voices. Should we raise taxes in order to get federal healthcare? (Imagine that: citizens of countries with national health coverage actually pay for it through taxes!) Or should we all be like John and pick up a gun when things get rough?

In its eagerness to depict the American healthcare system as wicked, John Q. simplifies issues to the point of making them unrealistic. For example, the complexities of a heart transplant (medical complications, ethics of skipping over patients who have been on the donor waiting list longer, etc.) are given far less weight than the notion that HMOs are determined to let little boys die rather than lose money.

Had it intelligently viewed all sides of the issue, John Q. might have been both an explosive drama and a serious social critique. But as it stands, it's merely melodramatic posturing that's too naive and one-sided to take to heart. Only Washington's performance salvages a hint of entertainment value in this otherwise bleak undertaking.

Rating: 5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)

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