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John Q

Starring Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, James Woods, Anne Heche, Eddie Griffin, Kimberly Elise, Shawn Hatosy and Ray Liotta
Screenplay by James Kearns
Directed by Nick Cassavetes

IN SHORT: An overpoliticized script guts the film. [Rated PG-13 for violence, language, and some intense thematic elements. 120 minutes]

To this day, we don't think we've ever seen Denzel Washington deliver a bad performance. That streak continues with John Q but, unfortunately, even Mr. Washington can't save this overwritten, overly sentimental, flawed story. The best thing we can say about that story is that, were you cursed enough to see the trailer, you'd be wrong if you think you know everything that happens. We were in that camp and, despite the expectation, by the time the true ending rolled around, we didn't care and we sat in our seat snickering at something we would have written in film school. And we wrote real lousy in film school (sic).

This is the story of a hard working, blue collar American family: Heavy machinist John Q. Archibald (Denzel Washington) has a lovely wife, Denise (Kimberley Elise) and a cute as a button 9-year old son named Mike (Daniel Smith). Cut back to 20-hour half shifts at the local plant, the Archibalds are making do with very little. Denise has just started work at the local supermarket but not in time to help John meet the payments on one of the family's cars. It's a happy, balance, loving family that is put to the test when Mike goes down and out -- almost for the count -- while trying to stretch a single into a double in a Little League game. The news from the doctors at Hope Memorial isn't good. Mike's heart is defective, swollen to three times normal size. A transplant is required but, at $18,000 a year, John Q doesn't make enough for the required downpayment ($75K on a $250K procedure) and makes too much to get welfare, and qualify under those rules. Despite all the best efforts of his coworkers and fellow Church members, John Q. just can't raise enough to satisfy the hard edged hospital administrator Rebecca Payne (Anne Heche). Even the local TV action reporter won't take the case.

So John raises the next best thing. A pistol. Luckily the e.r. is only lightly staffed and occupied when he chains the doors shut. Present is Dr. Turner (James Woods), a cardiac surgeon, an Italian guy named Mitch (Shawn Hatosy) and the girlfriend he beats; a punk named Lester (Eddie Griffin) and a couple of others who are, er, disposed of early on.

All John wants is his son's name put on the transplant list. Police hostage negotiator Grimes (Robert Duvall) is assigned to diffuse the situation if possible. His boss, Police chief Monroe (Ray Liotta), is determined to use the events to get substantial teevee time, spit shining the stars on the shoulders of the dress uniform he's donned. And then it's face off, sniper time, heavy duty emotional stuff between John and his family, the blood thirsty cops and the pacifist, desperate dad, and a building sequence of events that include a handy car accident which will have you thinking "wouldn't it be ironic if . . ."

You'll figure out where that particular thought was leading, easily, if you sit for John Q. The only reason the thought crossed out mind is that the preaching that fills the first hour of the story (about medical insurance and HMOs and gun control and more) isn't just trowelled on, it's bulldozered across the screen so blatantly that even the densest among us couldn't miss the point. Conservatives can bitch about liberal bias. This liberal knows when subtlety is a trait sorely lacking in a script. By the time the "big surprise" is explained, the politics of the script had pushed us far beyond the point of caring, made worse by the lesser characterizations of the supporting characters.

That doesn't mean there isn't a point to the preaching, it's just that writer James Kearns needs to learn subtlety and director Nick Cassavetes needs to put his foot down to get it. Kearns's script is so heavy handed that we didn't think anything could save it, but we didn't count on Denzel Washington, who almost pulls off a miracle. He doesn't but he does his damnedest.

Then comes the ending which, again, we are forbidden to reveal. Let's just say we, and the critics sitting around us, all felt like it was time to roll over and play dead. Washington, in this third act, almost makes everything right by easily handling some heavy handed emotional manipulative stuff. Robert Duvall coasts through scenes involving the politics of his particular job, which was also enjoyable. Anne Heche's character does a 180 that we didn't believe and, sorry folks, in a hostage situation we don't believe huge crowds would be allowed to gather outside the emergency area, all screaming their support for the hostage taker (regardless of the reason). What passes for media manipulation in this story is so far beyond anything even grounded in reality that there is only one place for this film.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to John Q, he would have paid . . .


Rent it or read the Denzel Washington StarTalk instead.

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