John Q

Feb 20, 2002 at 12:00 am

As congenitally flawed as the heart of its titular character’s son, John Q is both a ridiculous and poorly told revenge fantasy about the HMO and hospital industry, and a perverted cliché of a fanfare for the common man.

Of course, when we hear the title, John Q, our pop culture-trained minds reflexively complete it with the surname of “Public.” Denzel Washington’s (Academy Award Best Actor nominee for Training Day) John Quincy Archibald is that overqualified, underemployed — and more importantly for this flick, underinsured — blue-collar everyman of the Midwestern Rust Belt who was already old news during Bush senior’s recession.

TV writer James Kearns obviously manipulates his hero as a puppet-pawn through a hackneyed melodramatic plot. It’s the kind of screenwriting by numbers taught in mail-order courses. When John’s adorably clever son, Mike (Daniel E. Smith), collapses in heart failure while rounding the bases during a baseball game, John discovers his medical insurance won’t finance a life-saving heart transplant. After John and his fiercely loyal wife, Denise (Kimberly Elise), are stymied by the requisite amount of stumbling blocks, he does what we’d all do in the same situation: Get a gun and hold the hospital’s ER workers hostage until they promise his son a new heart.

And John Q becomes an urban folk hero in the process (the crowds outside the hospital cheer as if waiting to get a glimpse of a pop star). But remember: Murderous criminals, real and fictional, from Jesse James to Hannibal Lecter have also won the hearts of the masses — and they were psychopaths. Regardless of the importance of this movie’s bungled subject matter, director Nick Cassavetes’ typically muddled storytelling — and Washington’s incredible (and undeserved) performance — John Q raises a fundamental question: Post-Sept. 11, do we really want to make a gun-wielding, by-any-means-necessary kidnapper our national hero?

E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].