- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2002

Denzel Washington, justly nominated for a second Oscar for "Training Day," has turned up in one of the early groaners of 2002, a rabble-rousing topical monstrosity titled "John Q."

The movie requires him to add literal and histrionic flab while playing a desperate family man, machinist John Q. Archibald, who takes the unwritten law into his own hands. To be specific, he commandeers the emergency room of a Chicago hospital, holding several patients, staff members and bystanders hostage to shame the administration into considering his stricken 10-year-old son as a prime candidate for a heart transplant.

The movie itself is one of those shameless heart wrenchers, class baiters and special pleaders that cries out for surgical removal even as you struggle to sit through it. Moreover, it belabors a vigilante-payback pretext that seldom fails to misfire.

Its only novel touch is an enigmatic prologue that depicts the slow-motion highway death of a luxury-class beauty (Gabriela Oltean) who impatiently tries to pass one truck while another is approaching and pays a fatal price. It may deserve a curious place in the museum of morbid teases.

Some cast members have come this way before: Robert Duvall, who stalked Michael Douglas in "Falling Down," reappears as the police negotiator who tries to pacify John Q; Ray Liotta, a physician at the besieged VA hospital in "Article 99," volleys ranting scenes with Mr. Duvall as a publicity-seeking chief of police.

Anne Heche plays the hardhearted administrator who inevitably softens to John's plea. In fact, she softens soon enough to invalidate all the crises contrived for the last half-hour or so. To protect their innocence, no one bothers to inform John Q of status changes in a timely manner.

Best of all, James Woods pretends to be a brilliant but ambivalent heart surgeon. He's so good that a nurse has to tell him, "You are the finest surgeon I have ever known."

For a while, the suspense is touch-and-go: You're not sure if the filmmakers will prefer Mr. Washington as little Mike Archibald's donor or as Mr. Woods' surgical assistant.

Because the hospital is named Hope Memorial, you kind of shrug off the crisis, not all that dissimilar to weekly flights of smug hysteria on the "Chicago Hope" series. The movie seems to work best when comic relief in the emergency/ hostage room threatens to blossom into permanent medical slapstick. There's a particularly rollicking interlude of mace spritzings, aimed at cutting the resident punk (Shawn Hatosy) down to size and it works. His character sounds almost statesmanlike for the rest of the picture.

One actor looks like he actually belongs in a serious movie about medical professionals: James Finnerty, cast as the male nurse who seems to be in charge of Michael's care.


*1/2

TITLE: "John Q"

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual allusions; dubious thematic treatment of a hostage situation and a medical crisis involving a stricken child)

CREDITS: Directed by Nick Cassavetes. Written by James Kearns.

RUNNING TIME: 118 minutesMAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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