[Screen It]

(2002) (Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall) (PG-13)

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Drama: A desperate father takes various people in an emergency room hostage to ensure that his sick son gets the heart transplant he needs.
John Q. Archibald (DENZEL WASHINGTON), his wife Denise (KIMBERLY ELISE) and their young son Mike (DANIEL E. SMITH) lead a relatively happy life despite their various financial problems that stem from John's hours being cut back at the factory where he works with his friend, Jimmy (DAVID THORNTON).

When Mike is suddenly stricken ill and Dr. Turner (JAMES WOODS), the head cardiologist at Hope Memorial Hospital, informs the Archibalds that their boy needs a heart transplant or he'll die, their world is shattered. It gets worse, however, when hospital administrator Rebecca Payne (ANNE HECHE) informs them that John's health insurance doesn't cover that operation and its related costs, and that unless they can come up with a $75,000 down payment on the total $250,000 amount, Mike won't be put on the transplant waiting list.

To his shock, John learns that's true, and so the two set out to raise the money any way they can, including sell most of their personal effects. When that doesn't raise enough and the hospital announces it's going to discharge Mike, John becomes desperate and takes Turner and a handful of other people in the emergency room hostage.

Among those held by John is Mitch (SHAWN HATOSY), a cocky young man with a penchant for beating his lover; Lester (EDDIE GRIFFIN) a wise-cracking man who there's with a bloody hand; expectant parents Miriam (TROY BEYER) and Steve Smith (TROY WINBUSH), and Max (ETHAN SUPLEE), the unarmed security guard who isn't about to risk his life for such a low-paying job.

Arriving on the scene is veteran hostage negotiator Lt. Frank Grimes (ROBERT DUVALL) who tries to go through the normal drill, but must deal with Monroe (RAY LIOTTA), the police chief who shows up and wants his men to take out John as quickly and quietly as possible. Unfortunately for both of them, smarmy TV reporter Tuck Lampley (PAUL JOHANSSON) also shows up, as does a horde of supporters who crowd the streets and cheer on John's efforts.

As Mike gets sicker and the police get more edgy, John must deal with the various issues that pop up in the ER, as well as the increasingly intense hostage situation, all as he attempts to force the hospital to put Mike on the transplant waiting list and then finds himself forced to take extreme measures to make that happen.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
I don't know if it was because there was a higher doctor to patient ratio back then, that people didn't overwhelm them with hypochondriacal matters, or if it's simply due to the medical insurance agency and its repercussions on the health care industry, but doctor/patient relationships clearly aren't what they used to be.

That's particularly true when it comes to HMOs. While they have their limited benefits, the assembly line mentality -- where it appears doctors and nurses aren't paid enough to care or must meet some sort of unreported quota of patients per day - has resulted in far more impersonal visits than with doctors with their own practices in the past.

The whole medical care system has gotten to the point of being so bad and/or maddeningly caught up in red tape that I'm surprised more patients aren't expressing their outrage about their treatment, or that a few haven't taken recourse into their own hands when pushed too far and too much.

That's the premise of "John Q," the latest Hollywood film to get up on its soapbox and proclaim something to be wrong. Unfortunately, and despite its underlying worthwhile message and decent premise, the film is bungled as much as the health care system and needs to be put out of its and our misery before it gives novice filmmakers the wrong idea about how to make socially relevant pictures.

The film gets off to a bad start with a horribly overbearing and screechy score by novice composer Aaron Zigman accompanying a traffic accident scene. Anyone who's seen the previews or heard even just the basic premise of the film will realize that the victim will have the organ needed by the sick boy, with the only question being whether it will get to him in time and/or before his father does something drastic.

That's an okay setup if the film unfolds in real time or at least sequentially, but the fact that the scene is a view of future events seriously undermines the effectiveness of the material. Of course, screenwriter James Kearns (making his feature film debut) and director Nick Cassavetes ("She's So Lovely," "Unhook the Stars") don't really put that issue into play until near the end of the film when they need to ratchet up the race against the clock suspense. Until then, they tell their tale of an ordinary man pushed to the limits in such a manipulative, artificial, forced and heavy-handed way that you'll feel as if you're being beaten to within inches of your life.

In its basic form and stripped off its various problems, the subsequent setup isn't completely bad. A hardworking, blue-collar worker finds that he's been screwed by the system that's now going to let his son die due to various bureaucratic loopholes. As Peter Finch's character said in "Network" -- Sidney Lumet's satire on the TV industry -- John Q is mad as hell as isn't going to take it anymore.

Thus, he kidnaps the callous heart surgeon - unconvincingly played as far too uncaring by the usually terrific James Woods ("Any Given Sunday," "John Carpenter's Vampires") - along with the standard, eclectic collection of ER patients and personnel, and demands that his son be put on the waiting list for heart transplants.

Why he doesn't demand that his son be given a heart transplant then and there isn't clear or ever addressed, and it takes more than half of the movie for a brain surgeon - actually an assistant cop - to figure out that all they have to do is lie to him about being placed on the list and the situation will be resolved.

Unfortunately, that's just one of many problems that are more than readily apparent in this preachy and poorly crafted movie. The filmmakers obviously figured that with a hostage situation, one needs a police negotiator, the overzealous cop who wants to use violence to end it, and a self-indulgent TV reporter who gets the scoop on the coverage.

That, and the growing crowd of supporters who arrive on the scene would be fine if we hadn't seen that countless other times in films as old as "Dog Day Afternoon" or as recent as "Mad City," or if most of the characters weren't one-dimensional or simply poorly written.

Alas, all that could be wrong with the picture is just that, and not even the likes of the talented Robert Duvall ("The Sixth Day," "The Apostle") or Ray Liotta ("Hannibal," "Blow") can do anything interesting or worthwhile in their roles (although the former fares better than the latter who's too much in his over the top performance).

The result is a film whose message - which presumably attracted the A-list cast - is trampled upon by ham-fisted direction (see if you can count all of the instances of heavy-handed foreshadowing and/or symbolism), too many flat or caricature-based characters, a poorly written script and perhaps the most overbearing and obnoxious score to be heard in a mainstream release in the past several decades.

Beyond the film's unbelievable and implausible moments - and there are scores of them littered throughout the production - that not even an IV of suspension of disbelief could counter, there's the syrupy thick melodrama, Stevie Wonder's overbearing and mawkish montage song, bad editing and the question of why the lead actor, Denzel Washington ("Training Day," "Remember the Titans"), didn't go running into the night, screaming for his agent, manager or someone to fix this mess.

Fortunately, for the film and anyone unlucky or unwise enough to plunk down their money to see it, Washington near single-handedly saves the effort. While the rest of the big name stars or recognizable faces such as Anne Heche ("The Third Miracle," "Six Days, Seven Nights"), Eddie Griffin ("Double Take," TV's "Malcolm & Eddie") and Shawn Hatosy ("Anywhere But Here," "Outside Providence") make the film somewhat easier to watch (but only through facial recognition and not their performances), it's Washington who manages to breathe a great deal of life into one of the film's few three-dimensional characters.

Although John Q's actions and behavior aren't always believable or credible, Washington makes the character interesting, likable and sympathetic, which is something of an achievement considering the rest of the dreck surrounding him that would have otherwise engulfed a lesser actor. Kimberly Elise ("Beloved," "Set It Off") and Daniel E. Smith (makes his feature film debut) are okay as his wife and sick son, but it's Washington's movie and he almost makes it work.

Unfortunately, the many problems the filmmakers have created ultimately undermine even his performance as well as the film and its message. While it's possible some less discerning viewers might get wrapped up in the proceedings, the far too obvious faults result in a mess of a film that may send you to the doctor for one or more of the following: Inducing the gag reflex, causing wrist strain from checking your watch too many times, or prompting temporary blindness from far too much eye rolling.

Unless you're a diehard fan of someone in the cast or are a sucker for bad filmmaking, for your general cinematic well-being you should avoid this turkey. "John Q" rates as a 3 out of 10, but only because of Washington's presence and valiant effort.

Reviewed February 11, 2002 / Posted February 15, 2002

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