As a working class father pushed to extraordinary extremes in “John Q,” the incomparable Denzel Washington delivers another deeply impassioned performance. The makers of the film also display obvious passion in regards to the film’s central issue, but passion can often lead to preachiness, and Washington’s efforts are sunk by all the sanctimony.
The issue at hand is the health care crisis in America, which comes to hit way too close to home for Washington’s John Q. Archibald, a factory worker; and his wife Denise (Kimberly Elise), a grocery store clerk, when their seemingly healthy nine-year-old son Nate (Daniel E. Smith, who cranks up his cuteness to the max) mysteriously collapses during a baseball game. It turns out Nate’s heart has been severely weakened over the years, and a transplant is his only hope of survival. The scene where John and Denise are told the bad news by their hospital’s administrator Rebecca Payne (Anne Heche) and resident cardiologist Dr. Turner (James Woods) is genuinely heartbreaking; Washington and Elise’s performances here are marked by a difficult composure-maintaining subtlety that’s a far more heartbreaking than any clichéd histrionics would’ve been, not to mention more realistic.
Unfortunately, realism and restraint are soon tossed aside. When John’s limited health insurance coverage and contributions from the community fail to meet Nate’s steep medical costs, the hospital threatens to discharge the child. With all normal avenues no longer an option, John takes Dr. Turner, other staffers, and a handful of patients hostage in a hospital wing, demanding that Nate be added to the transplant list. Thus begins a hostage drama that is overwrought not only in its suspense-manufacturing manipulations but also in its heavy-handed discussion of medical insurance companies. While held prisoner, even by a person as goodhearted as John, it’s doubtful that anyone can deliver the level-headed, detailed, and altogether artificial speeches about HMOs and such that the hostages do here. If director Nick Cassavetes and writer James Kearns even attempted to make the speechifying less obvious, the film would have been that much more watchable, not to mention powerful in conveying its message.
As such, all the actors are pounded by the bludgeoning style. Washington, as good as he is, is stuck in a role with very little in the way of complexity; he’s as righteous as his cause despite the extreme measures he takes. On the flip side, anyone opposing him is broadly portayed as hissable, heartless bad guys, from Rebecca and Dr. Turner to the police hostage negotiator (Robert Duvall) and the pompous police chief (Ray Liotta)–this in addition to taking aim at easy targets, namely a vain TV news reporter (Paul Johansson). With its simplistic, didactic approach, the presence of a top-flight ensemble is the only thing separating “John Q” from your average TV movie of the week.