'John Q' could use less heart, a brain transplant

Posted: Thursday, February 28, 2002

It's hard to knock Denzel Washington's earnestness in ''John Q,'' the story of a desperate man who takes over an emergency room at gunpoint to force doctors to give his dying son a heart transplant.

The preposterous excess of zeal the film oozes is another matter.

In bashing a health care system that can leave a 10-year-old on his deathbed because of his family's empty pockets, director Nick Cassavetes also repeatedly bashes the audience in the head, painfully instructing viewers how they must, must react at each silly emotional summit.

Feel anger now (conk). Invoke your outrage here (thump). Weep in commiseration there (whack). Decry the heartless system throughout (crack, smack, thwack).

Heart trouble is not the problem with ''John Q.'' The movie needs a brain transplant.

''John Q'' is not so much a film as a contraption: A collection of socially conscious widgets pieced together on a Hollywood assembly line, each moving part flailing a hanky bearing the title character's image as poster boy for socialized medicine.

Toss in some inane groaners in James Kearns' script (like a TV reporter's allusion to O.J. Simpson, saying that exclusive footage from the ER is ''my white Bronco''), and ''John Q'' makes a C-SPAN hearing on HMO reform seem an appealing entertainment alternative.

Overindulgence begins with the title, the first name and middle initial of Washington's character, John Quincy Archibald. ''John Q'' looks good on a movie poster, but in their fervor to tell the story of an Everyman fighting the system, the filmmakers might as well have gone the extra few feet and made the last name ''Public.''

John is a doting husband and father, too saintly to believe, given his severe financial straits. His wife's car has just been repossessed. He's cut to half-time hours at the factory where he works. He practically grovels during an interview for a new job but is told he's overqualified.

Then John's son (newcomer Daniel E. Smith) collapses on a baseball field. John and his wife (Kimberly Elise) rush him to the hospital. The parents meet with Doc Turner (James Woods), the resident maestro of heart surgery, and the hospital administrator (Anne Heche). The boy needs a new heart, and John's health insurance won't cover the operation.

Friends raise money. The family's church passes the collection platter. John sells everything he can. But it's a fraction of what's needed, and the hospital decides to send the boy home to die.

Next thing, we're stuck in a bad variation of ''Dog Day Afternoon'' as John pulls a pistol on Turner and takes the emergency room staff and patients hostage, demanding his son be put on the heart-transplant waiting list.

Washington was far more believable as a bad cop in last year's ''Training Day'' than as a good man doing bad things here. Still, his performance has great passion, sadly squandered in an undeserving story.

Everyone else is a stereotype: The semi-compassionate hostage negotiator (Robert Duvall); the itchy-trigger-fingered police chief (Ray Liotta); the hostages who immediately bond with their captor; the adoring onlookers who cheer John on from outside.

Heche comes off the worst as the cold, calculating administrator. She's a miracle of medical science, a character who gets along just fine without a heart for most of the movie.

''John Q'' hits one of its many low points when John and his prisoners sit around the ER condemning the inadequacies of the health care system, with a brief side trip to gripe about the nation's lax gun control.

In painting John an outlaw hero, the movie conveniently sidesteps the possibility that his actions might deny another, equally deserving patient a life-sustaining heart. That would be too much moral ambiguity for this shameless piece of propaganda.

The first rule of medicine is: Do no harm. Too bad filmmakers don't have a similar code.

''John Q,'' a New Line release, is rated PG-13 for violence, language and intense thematic elements. Running time: 116 minutes. One and a half stars (out of four).



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