John Q

Directed by Nick Cassavetes
Starring: Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, James Woods, Anne Heche, Kimberly Elise, Ray Liotta, Eddie Griffin, Shawn Hatosy, Daniel E. Smith.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, language and intense thematic elements.

Review by Matt Heffernan <matt@filmhead.com>
February 21, 2002

In my review of American Beauty, I mentioned the audacity a film must have to use the Sunset Blvd. opening. In order to make it work, the film has to be so good that you don't care if you know how it ends. In the case of John Q, removing the element of surprise is a fatal mistake.

Under the opening credits, we are shown a woman driving a white BMW on a country road. She carelessly passes one car after another until she eventually gets caught between two trucks and suffers a seemingly fatal crash. Once the credits are over, she is quickly forgotten, and we move on to the story of the Archibald family. John Quincy Archibald (Denzel Washington) works at a steel plant in Chicago, but has been cut to a 20-hour week. His wife (Kimberly Elise) has a miniscule wage from her new job at a grocery store, but their son Mike (Daniel E. Smith) remains optimistic even after their car is repossessed.

Forgetting their financial troubles for a while, they go to Mike's Little League game. He scores a hit, but while he tries to steal second base, he collapses in the dirt. They rush him to the hospital where they find out that he needs a heart transplant in order to survive.

Now you're thinking: Hey, a donor just became available; that opening sequence could serve no other purpose. Everything's going to end up fine once the poor black kid gets the rich white lady's heart. You know it's going to happen, as do I and everybody else in the theatre -- but first we need a contrived conflict. It turns out that John's medical coverage was downgraded when his hours were cut, and his policy no longer covers heart transplants. Unable to get a better job or scrounge up the outrageous amount necessary to pay in cash, he decides to take the hospital hostage until his son is allowed a transplant.

What follows is a pretty standard hostage negotiation sequence with Robert Duvall playing the weathered old cop in charge and Ray Liotta as the younger, media-savvy police chief who wants everything spun well for the mayor's office. It drags on for about an hour until the forgone conclusion arrives and the requisite pleas are made for national health care.

It's certainly a valid issue to base a film on, but the argument could have been much stronger if the film were actually good. The screenplay by James Kearns (a veteran of TV shows such as "Highway to Heaven") is awkward and preachy when it should have been sensitive and realistic. The situation is naturally rather exaggerated, but more could have been done to make it believable.

Director Nick Cassavetes (who previously directed She's So Lovely, based on a screenplay written by his late father John) adds nothing but a slow place and a conventional visual style. At the end, he uses a montage of TV clips -- some manufactured and some borrowed -- of people promoting the idea of national health care. This simply ties into the film's half-baked, one-dimensional theme of the media's involvement with this issue and others like it. None of it amounts to anything that we haven't seen before on various TV movies.

Only the top-level cast reminds you that it is a feature film. Washington is always worth watching, but I would have to recommend waiting until you can see this performance on the small screen, where it belongs.

On a final, sad note, the aforementioned montage contains a clip of filmmaker Ted Demme appearing on "Politically Incorrect". I'm not sure if this was from an actual show or staged for this film, but it does amount to the last film appearance for this gifted director who tragically died a few weeks ago at the age of 38. Like Cassavetes, he was a second-generation director, being the nephew of Jonathan Demme. With promising films like The Ref and Blow, his future looked bright. Unlike John Q, his happy ending was not pre-ordained.


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
John Q (2002)


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Review © 2002 Matt Heffernan