A rare case of blatant political propaganda in a major Hollywood picture, “John Q.” is a shamelessly manipulative commercial on behalf of national health insurance. Bubbling over with melodrama and extreme situations played out by characters who are drawn in black-and-white terms (in more ways than one), this emotional button-presser lifts whole the central hostage-taking premise of “Dog Day Afternoon,” which only serves to illuminate the shrewd skill with which that picture was made. Agenda-driven New Line Cinema release is one of those bad movies that has a chance of becoming a fluke hit if its topical charge happens to strike a gullible public in the right way, and Denzel Washington’s presence atop the cast certainly enhances that possibility.
“John Q.” makes no bones about its ideological purpose, what with its postscript clips montage of the likes of Hillary Clinton and Gloria Allred (and, weirdly, the late Ted Demme) chiming in on the necessity of universal health care. It’s not surprising to learn that this first-produced screenplay by playwright and TV writer James Kearns was written in 1993, at the beginning of the Clinton Administration, when health care was on the front burner. The issues are still relevant, of course, but it would be nice to think that, after a decade, the discussion had evolved to a more nuanced, considered and insightful stage than is represented here. Not in some minds, obviously.
Script stacks the deck from the outset, as it positions John Q. Archibald (Washington) as a dedicated working man whose factory job has been downsized to the point where he can’t make ends meet. He’s a fine husband to his wife Denise (Kimberly Elise) and a great dad to 10-year-old Mike (the irrepressible Daniel E. Smith), a precocious body-building enthusiast. John’s only evident flaw is a tendency to say that he’ll do things without always having a way of following through, although he certainly means well.
But everything changes when little Mikey collapses while rounding the bases during a Little League game. Curiously hard-bitten cardiologist Dr. Turner (James Woods) and evil hospital manager Rebecca Payne (Anne Heche) — it’s the kind of movie in which you know she’s evil because she’s the only character who smokes — inform the distraught John and Denise that Mike’s heart is three times normal size and only a transplant can save his life — surgery that will cost $250,000. Since John’s insurance doesn’t cover such expensive procedures, one-third cash payment will be required in advance.
After hitting a brick wall with his employer, who belatedly explains the new HMO restrictions, being given the runaround by endless governmental bureaucracies and raising enough cash from friends to keep the slowly deteriorating Mike in the hospital for a little while, John becomes a desperate man and decides he’s finally going to follow through on one of his promises: He’s going to make sure his son gets a new heart if it’s the last thing he does.
Without anyone actually asking him, “Hey, did you ever see a movie called ‘Dog Day Afternoon’?,” John has the idea of taking over Hope Memorial’s emergency room and holding everyone there hostage until the authorities meet his demand that Mike’s name be put at the top of the list for a heart transplant. With the rallying cry “From now on, free health care for everybody,” John marshals spirited support from the public that gathers outside along with the drooling media and the cops, who are fronted by old pro hostage negotiator Grimes (Robert Duvall), who initiates discussions with John, and prima donna police chief Monroe (Ray Liotta), who would rather just blow the “bad guy” away.
As hostage takers go, you couldn’t do much better than John, who’s courteous to everyone who deserves it and even allows in a profusely bleeding gunshot wound victim for treatment. At this point, however, the picture unintentionally becomes a parody of the stage and television “little people” dramas of the ’50s; there’s the woman about to give birth, the Latina with a constantly crying baby, the black hipster who’s down with John’s program, the hot-headed wise guy who thinks he can solve the crisis single-handedly. Most amusing of all are the moments when, in the middle of this life-and-death crisis, they and the medics on hand sit around with John enumerating the ills of the health care system in America.
And then there’s Dr. Turner, who, when all other avenues have been closed off, agrees to John’s final solution: John will kill himself, whereupon Turner will instantly transfer his heart into the body of his son. If it hasn’t already, pic will at this moment divide audiences into two camps, one that will find this instance of parental self-sacrifice the most heart-rending thing they’ve ever seen, the other that will reflexively gag at the most outrageous bit of emotional string-pulling in a picture full of it.
Director Nick Cassavetes slathers on the sentiment and the politics with the widest possible brush strokes, an effort supplemented by Aaron Zigman’s often wildly melodramatic score. Editor Dede Allen was no doubt engaged in the hope that some of the magic she worked on “Dog Day Afternoon” would carry over to this effort, but that would presuppose having comparable material with which to work. A few location shots establish the Chicago setting, but there’s no escaping that most of the picture was shot in Toronto.
Still, despite all the exaggerations and simplifications, Washington manages to create a credible characterization of a decent working class man driven to extremes, and he’s nicely allied in his efforts by Elise as his suffering but loyal wife and Smith as the son who aspires to have muscles as big as his heart. Other thesps show no strain in brandishing their characters’ single defining aspects so that no one can miss them.