For about its first twenty minutes, Nick Cassavetes' John Q is a tough-minded, realist, working class drama worthy of Ken Loach – or even the director's father, John Cassavetes.
John (Denzel Washington) and his wife Denise (Kimberley Elise) are struggling to survive financially. When their young son, Michael (Daniel E. Smith), collapses and is sent to emergency with a rare and serious heart condition, John and Denise are plunged into the horror of spiralling medical debt.
When no bureaucracy will show any sympathy or offer any support – and Michael faces expulsion from hospital without the surgery he desperately needs – John decides he must take the situation into his own hands. It is at this point that John Q takes a sharp and disconcerting turn into loony Hollywood fantasy.
Giving away the plot would spoil what enjoyment there is to be had from this folly of a film. Suffice to say, John's stand inside the hospital plays out like a cross between Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and The Breakfast Club (1985). Earnest discussions between a cross-section of real-people types alternate with furiously pumped-up, frequently ludicrous moments of action and suspense.
Meanwhile, a vast crowd gathers outside the hospital, and the world watches it all on television. Cassavetes has plenty of opportunity to bring in appealing talents, including Robert Duvall, Anne Heche, Ray Liotta and Elena Harring. James Woods is compulsively watchable as he hovers between high-intensity and self-parody in his role as an uptight, mercenary surgeon.
The oddest thing about this mind-bogglingly awful movie is how conservative it ends up being. Even though it sets out to fearlessly expose the corrupt values of the American system, it cannot truly countenance any action that would be outside the law. We are, sadly, a long way from the anti-authoritarian '60s.
The giveaway moment comes midway, when a media commentator blandly pontificates: "If there is a problem then we are the problem, all of us." In other words, the system can be excused, after all.
© Adrian Martin May 2002