There are few things I dread more in life than reviewing a truly great movie. I can only come up with so many things to say with any variation - "Great cast. Beautiful direction. Witty writing. I'm sure the catering was excellent." - and so on and so forth. Luckily (in a backwards sort of way) John Q. has me writing the exact opposite kind of critique. Ladies and gentlemen, strap in tight - we're going for a near-total pan. Prepare for some heavy use of negative language.
First of all, I'm glad to see some parts of Hollywood have totally given up their respect for the viewer's intelligence. I was wondering when that other shoe was going to drop, and drop it has. For example, the trailers completely and totally give away the plot of the film. You've probably seen the trailer. I don't even watch TV ("Buffy" excepted) and I've seen it at least 3 times. Great, so you know too much of the plot...desperate dad John Q. Archibald (Denzel Washington) holds an emergency room hostage to try to force the hospital into giving his dying son a needed heart transplant that he can't afford and that his HMO won't cover. Fine. Trailers do this all the time. We deal.
However, John Q. raises it a notch, by practically giving you the ending of the film in the first five minutes, by opening on a totally unrelated incident that you know will tie up all the loose ends in under two hours time. Maybe this was some kind of warning that the audience could safely walk out now, knowing that things turn out a certain way, and you don't really have to even bother with the swill that follows.
Or, maybe, screenwriter James Kearns didn't know what the hell he was doing when he tried to write a movie, because he manages to tie in my three C's of bad scripts (convolution, cliché and conceitedness) into one awful little flick. It's just full of sudden, contrived happenings, characters that walked out of the Beginner's Guide to One-Dimensional Caricatures, and Big Important Speeches that talk down to the audience as if they couldn't possibly understand what was happening in their own country. Plus, I kept on thinking how truly excellent the situations in Airheads were by comparison.
You see, the movie has a beef with HMO's, as expressed in a very long and very poorly delivered speech given by Kevin Connolly (as a hostage intern). It's understood that HMO's are a corrupt system... It is possible for a movie to make that point without a dissertation written and blathered out like a high school freshman's oral report. Plus, it sends a message that if you have a problem with the way things work, a gun is the very best way to solve it.
Director Nick Cassavetes is still not his father John, which is a damn shame, because it probably could have helped this movie. John Q. is filled with long ponderous shots, and forced bits of sentimentality. At one point, when John is asked if he has insurance, the camera pauses on him, announcing "Crucial Point in Plot" quite loudly (and you can just tell that Denzel did not want to make that interruption in the flow). Every single point in the film where Kearns' script starts to dip into banality, Cassavetes is right there to give it a good tug downward.
Plus, not only are a good load of talented actors wasted - some of them give the worst performances possible. I expect more from James Woods (playing a single-note asshole cardiac surgeon) and I certainly know that Robert Duvall (as the hostage negotiator) can do better. Ray Liotta is similarly bad, and Anne Heche is damn lucky she has an alternate outer space personality to fall back on, because the human being she plays here has no meat whatsoever. Three young where-have-I-seen-them-before actors (Ethan Suplee, Shawn Hatosy, and Connolly) are easily the worst, though... All of them were very difficult to watch.
If John Q. has any redeeming qualities whatsoever, they reside in the charismatic lead. Denzel commands the screen, and does what the script and director cannot - give the character an existence. He doesn't yell desperation. He doesn't need to. You can see it in his eyes; that, and the love he holds for his child. Every time Denzel was alone on the screen, I cared. Really I did... It's just that the pesky co-stars tended to get in the way, and they do it a lot. Say what you want about Great, Oscar-worthy performances. I think it shows real acting ability to be able to do anything with your craft when everything else about the film is so insanely awful. This is probably going to go down as the most embarrassing film on his resumé (and I'm counting The Siege), but that doesn't mean he doesn't give it his absolute best.
I think that the most damning thing I can say about John Q. is that it is the only film that I have ever wanted to get up and walk out of. It quite literally offended me as a movie-goer. I expect to be treated with a small modicum of respect by the filmmakers and they put a dunce cap on me, sat me in the corner, and explained to me How Things Are in very small, one-syllable words. I don't deserve that, and neither do you. Don't waste your money.