THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


I'm often asked if I watch movies differently because I'm a critic. My answer is always the same: I watch movies just like any other member of the audience; it's not until I'm in front of my computer that I become a critic. What I mean by this statement is that I don't sit in a film picking it apart. I simply sit down, hoping to have a good time. The whys and why-nots of liking it don't get figured out until later. Every once in a while, though, there comes a picture like John Q. You know what I mean - one of those films where you can't help but sit there and see every single thing that's wrong with it. The kind of film that almost flaunts its badness at you.

Denzel Washington confronts a heartless heart surgeon played by James Woods in John Q
Here's the set-up: Denzel Washington plays John Quincy Archibald, a laborer who adores his wife Denise (Kimberly Elise) and young son Mikey (Daniel E. Smith). During a Little League game, Mikey suddenly drops over and is rushed to the local hospital. A renowned heart surgeon named Dr. Turner (James Woods) tells John and Denise that their son has an enlarged heart and requires a transplant to live. Then the inexplicably nasty hospital administrator, Rebecca Payne (Anne Heche), informs them that Mikey isn't sufficiently covered under John's health insurance. Take him home and let him die comfortably, she advises them. Determined to save his son's life, John storms the hospital's emergency room, taking people hostage and demanding that his son be placed at the top of the donor list. A veteran hostage negotiator (Robert Duvall) is called in to talk him down, but John won't be denied. He wants a heart for his son, insurance be damned.

In case you haven't figured it out, John Q is a Message Movie. Actually, it's more like a 2-hour Public Service Announcement. The point here isn't really to entertain you, but to deliver an obvious message in as heavy-handed a manner as possible. Everything that happens in this film is geared to hammer home the Message one more time: HMOs are bad. Now it's hard to argue with the fact that the HMO system sometimes leaves people (especially those in a lower income bracket) without the care they need. Nor is it difficult to image how universal health care would benefit our country. But do we really need to be preached to about it in such a pandering way? The film knows no shame when it comes to delivering the Message. At one point, the Heche character practically looks at the camera and says: "There are 50 million people in this country without health insurance. If you don't like it, call your Congressman!"

I found the movie to be utterly fake in the way it addresses a valid issue. It stacks the deck against HMOs by making Turner and Payne into egotistical, uncaring, lying villains. They might as well have the word "EVIL" stamped in large letters on their foreheads. These two are so callous about the potential loss of a little boy's life that they stop being characters and take on the role of punching bags. And, of course, we also get the gratuitous montage of John getting the runaround from welfare agencies. Do these sorts of things happen in real life? I have no doubt that they sometimes do. Is the movie telling us anything we don't already know? Nope. I really found it hard to care about John's struggle when the plot is so blatant in its manipulation. Everything here is designed solely to rile up the audience, making them call for the blood of the "bad" characters. Judging from the audience reaction when I saw it, the movie got its wish. Personally, I'm no great defender of the HMO system, but I think the movie shoots fish in a barrel.

Maybe I could have lived with the Afterschool Special tone of John Q if the rest of it wasn't so insipid. Here is a movie that contains many cliches: The reporter who wants to break the story because it will make his career, but only after his hair is perfectly made up; the hostages who come to sympathize with their captor because he's such a good guy; and the police chief (Ray Liotta) who wants the public to see him take a bad guy out, because it is an election year. Oh, and I have to tell you about that scene. John is baracaded in the ER, talking to the very sick Mikey on a phone. Somehow, a security camera feed is being broadcast on national TV. Liotta's character chooses that very moment - when this "maniac" is revealing his noble intentions - to have a sniper fire at John. I'm absolutely sure that the dumbest cop in America, whoever he/she may be, wouldn't be so dumb as to do that.

There's also a lot of general nonsense going on in this picture. Take, for instance, the gaping holes in logic - holes big enough to drive an ambulance through. If John has really taken over a big city hospital, how come there is hardly anybody there? (The ER seems strangely deserted.) When John has the elevator system shut down, why don't people in other parts of the hospital notice? Or try coming down the staircase? What is with the subplot about the wife-beater whose battered spouse uses the hostage crisis as an excuse to kick her abuser in the groin? Why is this Home Alone-style gag in the middle of a movie that's supposed to be about health care coverage? And could the film have been more obvious in making Mikey's blood type B-positive ("Be positive")?

I could go on and on about the endless health care debates the characters engage in, but why bother? We all know there's a problem here. Instead of treading over the same subject matter endlessly, why couldn't the script offer up a solution? Aside from taking a gun into a hospital, that is. I could also go on about the lameness of the ending, in which John becomes a folk hero for his actions. What I will say instead is that Denzel Washington is the only saving grace this miserable picture has. He delivers a sharp, emotionally heartfelt performance that proves he can be terrific even in a bad movie. Washington takes John Q far more seriously than it deserves to be taken.

( 1/2 out of four)

John Q is rated PG-13 for violence, language and intense thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.

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