Director: Nick Cassavetes
Cast: Denzel Washington, Robert, Duvall, Kimberly Elise, Anne Heche, Ray Liotta, James Woods, Daniel E. Smith
MPAA Rating: (for violence, language and intense thematic elements)
Running Time: 1:58
Release Date: 2/15/02
Review by Mark Dujsik
At one point in John Q, a hostage negotiator played by Robert Duvall tells the title hero that he’s turned his plight into a simple "issue of the week" event for the media to chew up and forget quite quickly. That’s exactly where Nick Cassavetes’ thriller makes the same mistake. It takes a serious topic—health care reform—and places it in a completely typical hostage thriller. The characters, the situations, the twists are all recycled screenplay elements. The entire thriller angle feels like a very slight variation on a screenplay template. The topic itself was at the center of a huge political debate a decade or so ago, and it certainly is worth bringing up again. The movie has something to say and on a certain level I admire its bluntness, but it is a statement and issue worthy of a much more thoughtfulness and insight than a melodramatic and wholly predictable thriller.
John Archibald (Denzel Washington) works at a factory where his hours have recently been cut down. The Archibalds are barely making ends meet. His wife Denise’s (Kimberly Elise) car is towed away because John cannot keep up with payments. At a little league baseball game, his son Mike (Daniel E. Smith) collapses on the field and rushed to the hospital where he is diagnosed with an enlarged heart. Dr. Turner (James Woods), the local cardiologist, tells the Archibalds that their son will die soon if he does not have a heart transplant. John is convinced that his insurance will cover the procedure, but hospital director Rebecca Payne (Anne Heche) tells them that coverage for such a costly procedure was denied. Once this road is closed off, the Archibalds begin finding as many opportunities to raise money as possible. Their efforts comes nowhere close to paying for the operation, and despite paying the hospital whatever money has been made, Mike is scheduled to be released from care. Denise pleads with her husband to do something, and so John takes Dr. Turner and everyone in the emergency room hostage.
The initial setup is fine enough. We can begin to relate to the family’s plight, but once John takes this action, the movie really starts to show its inner-workings. A wide assortment of caricatures occupies the resulting scenario, and all of them feel thrown in for some sort of small and oftentimes unnecessary plot advancement. The emergency room contains an abusive man and his girlfriend, a doctor who makes sure the audience understands what insurance companies do to patients, a pregnant woman, a woman who does not speak English, and Eddie Griffin providing some completely pointless comedic relief (especially considering the overall "seriousness" of the whole movie). On the outside, the negotiator goes from sympathetic to critical to sympathetic again depending on where exactly we are in the story. Payne is left to be the villain with a difficult moral decision to make. A news reporter comes in to be representative of the media and how low they can be, but later the action he takes saves John. Finally, the chief of police (played by Ray Liotta) enters and provides the obvious "let’s take the swift and violent" approach to solving the situation.
The resulting scenario for the movie is a bevy of usually fine actors left drifting in the wind. The chief of police exits the story as randomly as he enters it, and in between, Ray Liotta does as much as he can with the very sketchy purpose his character fills. Anne Heche plays the villain director hard-as-nails enough to get the movie’s point across, but once her moral dilemma comes into play, the script doesn’t provide enough motivation for even the slightest change. Saddest of all, though, is watching two veterans, Robert Duvall and James Woods, try to find their way through this mess of a character-driven script. Duvall especially has very little to work with, and his moments on screen have an unfortunate awkwardness about them. The movie belongs to Denzel Washington, though, and he gives a riveting performance. He is both intense and vulnerable, and some of the most melodramatic scenes have poignancy to them because of his performance.
The lack of defined characters is the movie’s ultimate flaw. Without any true conflict or intelligent discussion, the basic statement of the movie is undermined. Sure Cassavetes and screenwriter James Kearns mean well, but their efforts could have been put to much better use in a movie that actually explores its central theme instead of forcing themselves into a corner by simply exploiting it.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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