3 Stars
Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 118 minutes
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Hey, the latest from Denzel Washington may not be getting any respect from critics but a number of factions within the health care industry are taking its anti-HMO message pretty seriously and you have to get a kick out of that. The American Association of Health Plans, an organization which represents major health insurers and HMOs, for example, has launched an ad campaign which blames politicians for problems with the system. “It’s a crisis for 40 million people who can’t afford health care”, the ad states, “Instead of offering solutions, some in Washington are making the problem worse- pointing fingers and even proposing new laws that will make it harder for employers like John Q’s to provide quality, affordable health care…” Wouldn’t want to point fingers, would we?
The American Hospital Association is equally hurt by the film’s suggestion that health care providers sometimes put financial concerns ahead of a patient’s interests. But it’s not too happy with the AAHP campaign either. According to the group’s spokesman, “All the ad does is put the blame on everyone else.” As far as the film’s concerned: “It’s a man against the system movie- to make it work, they have to make the system evil.”
Considering how ineffectual politicians have been in getting these guys’ attention, you’ve got to give director Nick Cassavetes credit for succeeding where they’ve consistently failed.
The beef most reviewers seem to have with the picture arises from its movie of the week teleplay tone and structure. Washington stars as a hardworking blue collar husband and father doing his best to keep it together in the face of mounting financial hardship. Factory management have cut his hours in half, his car has been repossessed and the family savings account is down to about one month’s mortgage payment. He struggles to find a second job while making a point to shield his young son from the seriousness of the situation. In the course of a neighborhood baseball game, however, the situation gets infinitely more serious when the boy collapses while running the bases. Once their son is stabilized at the local hospital, Washington and his wife (Kimberly Elise) are confronted with devastating news: The boy needs a new heart, the family’s policy won’t pay the quarter million for the transplant procedure and the hospital’s head administrator, played by Anne Heche, will provide treatment on a cash basis only.
Washington sells everything and his friends raise thousands in contributions but the best they can come up with is a drop in the bucket. When the child takes a turn for the worse, Washington realizes it’s time to take action. He grabs a gun and the hospital’s head of cardiac surgery then takes the entire ER hostage.
James Woods is in fine form as the smarmy heart specialist. Robert Duvall has been accused of overacting in his role as the police negotiator sent in to diffuse the crisis but makes the most of a somewhat underwritten part if you ask me. Tension builds steadily as Washington demands his son’s name be put on the recipient waiting list before it’s too late and Heche, convincing as a bean-counting ice queen, refuses to relent. Row after row of police and press mass outside. A swat team prepares to infiltrate the building. Meanwhile, the hostages and the gunman get to know each other. We’ve seen this sort of thing before, of course, in Dog Day Afternoon and several films since but that doesn’t alter the fact that Washington’s cause is convincing, his relationships with hostages more often than not are compelling and, at the core of the story, is a deadly serious issue, the real life timebomb of skyrocketing medical costs and healthcare industry corruption.
There’s a powerful scene in which Washington asks Woods why his son’s condition hadn’t been discovered earlier during routine exams. Woods won’t fess up but a younger doctor explains that some HMOs actually provide physicians with financial incentives for not performing expensive tests, that very possibly the boy’s abnormality had gone undetected simply because some doctor had bought into the system. Hey, it may not be Erin Brockovich but this is a movie that deals with pretty heavy duty stuff. I’m not sure why so many reviewers are letting the fact that it does so within a familiar dramatic structure detract from that.
It may push more buttons than envelopes but John Q is a good old fashioned potboiler that generates ripped from the headlines heat. The story takes a predictable turn here and there and a character sees the light with dubious abruptness on one or two occasions but, on balance, the film is powerful, thought-provoking and unpretentious. For some reason critics aren’t being terribly kind but I bet audiences by and large are going to find it just what the doctor ordered.

Posted on February 15, 2002 in Reviews by

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