Hurrah for Denzel Washington. No, really. He’s perhaps the only black actor to have made the transition to color-blind Hollywood roles, but never in a movie like John Q, calculated for mass appeal. Aimed squarely at blue-collar family guys and designed to infuriate them about their own precarious financial situations—and to give them a taste of sweet revenge to boot—this working-class anthem of a movie could easily substitute Bruce or Mel for Denzel without changing a single thing.
So hurrah for Denzel. But boo for thoughtful movie fans who don’t enjoy seeing tough social problems reduced to overwrought melodrama.
A more loving, hardworking and wholesome family than the Archibalds of Chicago is not to be imagined. John (Washington) is under-employed at the pollution factory. His wife, Denise (Kimberly Elise), works at a supermarket checkout. Sure, they have their spats, particularly over their tight budget, but never in front of cherubic young Mike (Daniel E. Smith), who enjoys Little League and donuts. Life’s a little rough sometimes, with so little money coming in, but still they sing “Jesus Loves Me” at church on Sunday, the Archibald men in suits and ties.
Then, without warning, Mike collapses at a ballgame. The diagnosis: heart failure. He needs a transplant. John’s insurance coverage has been HMO-ized and won’t cover the procedure. The hospital is about to discharge Mike, and Denise demands that John “do something.” So he does the only Hollywood thing he can think of: He storms the Hope Memorial Emergency Room with a gun, takes hostages, and demands a heart for his son.
It’s like a steel-mill call-to-arms sung by a millionaire rock star waving a stars-and-stripes bandana: “Ain’t that America,” John Q snorts bitterly, “when a good man is pushed to crime by The System?” But the cards are unrealistically stacked against John—or “John Q,” as he dubs himself for the news media-types that immediately descend, in case we didn’t already understand that John is Us. It’s absurd to suppose that any hospital would chance the bad publicity it would surely bring upon itself by discharging a small, adorable, dying black child. And it’s even more ridiculous to suppose that any hack reporter worth his hair gel would pass up that angle. Even though John Q is half about an un-ironic attempt at satirizing the media, no one plays the race card and accuses the hospital of bigotry.
Washington’s performance is almost unbearably heartbreaking, but more lamentable is the fact that he’s stuck in such an offensively simplistic story. Of course health care, especially transplant surgery, is expensive. Of course many people don’t have the coverage they need. Yet screenwriter James Kearns casts the hospital administrator (Anne Heche) in the role of ice-queen-bitch for denying Mike his operation without ever giving her the opportunity to work out a feasible, reasonable solution to this terrible dilemma. Also in the real world, you can’t trust hostage-takers holding innocent people at gunpoint. Kearns nevertheless casts the police chief (Ray Liotta) as the bastard for doing his job by instigating a plan to take John out. We in the audience know John is a Good Guy who wouldn’t hurt a fly, but how the hell is the cop outside supposed to know that? Then again, Kearns is responsible for episodes of the TV series Highway to Heaven, so perhaps it’s no wonder John Q plays like a sweeps-month episode of ER.
There’s no debate on this tough issue, and no attempt at finding real answers to a genuine problem, except the Hollywood one—that taking hostages does actually work if you’re basically a decent, loving, hard-working dad. Is this the kind of thing Denzel wants on his rÃ©sumÃ©? Maybe it’s better than swaggering around as a cop who thinks he’s king of the ghetto—though how bad a gig can that be if it snags you an Oscar nomination?