John Q. (2002) Movie Review

The Denzel Washington movie “John Q” is a Fight the System film in the same vein of Michael Douglas’ “Falling Down.” Fight the System movies rely on a system (re: the establishment) that is a bane in people’s lives. “John Q” chooses the healthcare establishment as its enemy, and it chose wisely, since the whole subject of national healthcare is still a major debating point in 2002.

Washington is John Archibald, a blue-collar machinist just trying to make ends meat and care for his family. He’s not the smartest guy in the world, is even a little too stubborn, but he’s kind, he’s good to his son and wife, and he cares about people. When John’s son Mikey falls ill because of heart failure, John runs into the debacle that is the current healthcare system, mainly the nightmare that is the HMO establishment. Not only has John’s company lowered his coverage without informing him, but the hospital and its administration is threatening to kick poor Mikey into the streets unless his bills are paid!

All of this, and Mikey needs a heart transplant or otherwise he’ll die. But without proper insurance, John can’t afford the hospital’s $250,000 asking fee! Talk about pressure. Without any other recourse, John takes the hospital emergency room hostage with a gun and a steely determination to see justice done.

There are a number of problems with “John Q” that prevents the film from achieving greatness, or even a very good social commentary. As it stands, the film is just good, with its problems stemming mainly from lazy writing. James Kearns’ screenplay is filled with stereotypical characters that are completely one personality in the film’s first half and a whole different personality in the second, as if they were all given personality transplants in-between halves. The sudden reversals in people’s personalities — a trait conditioned by years of living — are unconvincing, even if there’s a guy with a gun in your face, which might force you to rethink a few things.

A character that best embodies this hasty transformation is an abusive youth who is held hostage in the emergency room along with his girlfriend; the girlfriend’s arm is broken and she has a black eye, and it becomes known that the boyfriend is responsible for both. As one character calls the youth, he’s from the “slap your ho” tribe. But suddenly this abusive, loudmouth, and vitriolic character becomes John Q’s biggest cheerleader by the film’s second half! This great epiphany, mind you, occurs after the youth has tried to kill John with a syringe and the two tussled for John’s gun, leaving the youth bloodied, with a few broken ribs, and a bruised, er, crotch area.

Director Nick Cassavetes also has a bad habit of turning up the soundtrack at the most inappropriate moments. The worst part of it is there isn’t any need for Cassavetes to try to play with our heartstrings, mostly because Washington conveys all these emotions as the working stiff with the paunchy gut and old truck.

The set-up for John’s eventual breakdown and his taking over of the emergency room is well done, and Kearns spends about 20 minutes taking us through every single encounter, interview, and meeting that John and his wife Denise (Kimberly Elise) must take in order to find some help for their son. It’s quite painful to watch as one person after another turns them away without so much as fake sympathy; and the worst part of it is, some of the very unhelpful people in the movie aren’t just stock characters, but they actually exist in real life! I know because I’ve met a few of them.

Some of the familiar characters that show up as a result of John Q’s hostage taking is Robert Duvall, who was also in the other Fight the System movie “Falling Down,” where he also played a cop. (Get stereotyped much, Robert?) Ray Liotta makes an appearance as the resident politician/asshole/police superior who gets in the way of Duvall’s veteran cop. Of course, no hostage movie is complete without the jerk of a reporter who is only looking out for himself. In this case it’s Paul Johansson in a cartoonish turn as the improbably named Tuck Lampley.

Been there, done that, don’t want the T-shirt.

The film also makes too many speeches instead of just letting the situation dictate its message. On more than one occasion characters deliver such well-written speeches via Kearns’ screenplay that I kept looking for the soapbox underneath their feet. I could have done without the sermons, and would have liked the movie to make its points naturally as the movie progresses, not stop everything for a speech moment. There is just a part of me that hates to be lectured to so blatantly.

Overall, “John Q” is an exciting and interesting film. Washington’s performance keeps everything together and the man is truly one of the best actors of our generation. In spite of its cardboard characters and their unconvincing (and highly improbable) changes of hearts (not to mention attitudes and personalities), the film could still have made a lasting impression if only it hadn’t taken the easy road out. There is a moment there, toward the end, where the film had just a sliver of a chance to become poetic, but instead the filmmakers went for…

Well, you’ll see for yourself. It’s just so…Hollywood. Which is unfortunate, but there you have it.

Nick Cassavetes (director) / James Kearns (screenplay)
CAST: Denzel Washington …. John Quincy Archibald
David Thornton …. Jimmy Palumbo
Anne Heche …. Rebecca Payne
James Woods …. Dr. Turner
Eddie Griffin …. Lester
Robert Duvall …. Lt. Frank Grimes
Ray Liotta …. Chief Monroe
Paul Johansson …. Tuck Lampley

Buy John Q. on DVD