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John Q   B-

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Nick Cassavetes
Writer: James Kearns
Cast: Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, Kimberly Elise, James Woods, Anne Heche, Eddie Griffin, Shawn Hatosy, Daniel E. Smith, Ray Liotta.

Review by Rob Vaux

One of the cute little quirks about guns: everybody pays attention when you pull one out. People who wouldn't give you the time of day, people who spend weeks blowing you off or ignoring your problems, suddenly have nothing better to do than hang on your every word. Of course, they usually raise all kinds of sticky legal issues as well, but in the short term, they can be very appealing. That must be why Hollywood likes using them so much. Complex issues turn into straight goody-guys/bad guys stuff with the simple addition of a firearm, allowing producers to pay lip service to "serious issues" without actively engaging them.

John Q almost falls victim to such shallow thinking. Ostensibly an outcry against the current state of American health care, it panders as often as it preaches, using rabble-rousing tactics in support of a very complex issue. Though its heart is in the right place, it comes perilously close to undoing those good intentions with rubber-hammer emotions and outright demagoguery. It's saved, like countless other pictures before it, by the presence of the incomparable Denzel Washington in the lead. Washington is riding the crest of an Oscar nomination for his Mephistophelean police officer in Training Day. Here, he turns the smoldering anger from that earlier film towards a more noble cause, playing a desperate father with a child in need of a heart transplant. His performance catalyzes all of the emotions the rest of the film struggles with, and keeps John Q from sinking under the shameless histrionics.

Washington's John Quincy Archibauld is having a hard time making ends meet, but he does the best he can and he believes that his health insurance plan will cover any contingency. Unfortunately, when his factory cuts him back to part-time status, his coverage drops as well, leaving him high and dry when his son's heart begins to fail. He tries everything: selling his possessions, taking up collections, the whole gamut of montage-inducing fund-raisers... all for naught. When the hospital finally cuts him off, he responds like any good movie hero -- by pulling a gun and taking hostages. He takes over an emergency room full of scared, injured people, and demands that his son go on the donor list... or else.

The inevitable standoff feels very old (despite the stalwart presence of Robert Duvall as the police negotiator) but as a fulcrum to talk about the film's central issue, it suffices. Under pressure from the police guns, John Q has a chance to vent his frustrations, giving director John Cassavetes ample opportunity to milk the message for all it's worth. Unfortunately, the rest of the film comes distressingly close to dropping the ball on numerous occasions. John Q struggles most when it gives in to its baser instincts, shamelessly playing to audience sympathies. It delivers an appalling bevy of easy villains -- Anne Heche's icy administrator, Ray Liotta's glory-hungry cop, a misogynistic hostage for Denzel to pound on -- as well as enough calculated melodrama to give Charles Dickens pause.

But every time it starts to falter -- every time you roll your eyes and think "gimme a break" -- Washington steps forward and puts things back on track. Watching his pained, desperate expression, you can feel the anguish of the situation, and understand the frustration his character feels. His soliloquies speak to anyone who's had to deal with an HMO, or fought their way through the morass and bullshit only to be told that they're not covered. Washington's performance zeroes in on issues that the rest of the film fumbles around, and turns what could have been a turgid potboiler into something vaguely watchable. In his hands, John Q comes close to actually making a coherent point, and keeps the not-inconsiderable shortcomings at bay long enough to salvage the film.

Someone once suggested that Washington specifically picks mediocre projects in order to make his talent stand out all the more. With John Q, he not only rescues a very questionable movie, but lends it a sense of dignity and moral weight that it couldn't hope to achieve on its own. Health care is a serious problem in America, and the issue could make a potent piece of filmmaking in the right hands. If Washington could make silk out of this sow's ear, imagine what he could do with a real script: they might not even need the guns.

Review published 02.20.2002.

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