This week’s other release, John Q, is by far the weaker movie of the two. It is no more than a mawkish, obvious, poorly made howler of a hostage movie. The phrases “subtle Bruce Willis movie” and “poorly made Denzel Washington film” were not meant to exist in the English language, and yet here they are. Crazier things have happened, and if you don’t believe me, take a look at last month’s Kung Pow: Enter the Fist (which might be the strangest film ever made).

John Q has everything backwards. The concept and commercials grab the imagination easily: working man has a son, son needs help, HMOs won’t pay, man resorts to desperate measures, how will it end? These ideas appeal to something in all of us, and I really wanted to like this movie. I walked away in utter disgust.

There is nothing more manipulative than a dying kid in a movie. When you put something like that on the table, you have to be able to back it up with facts, detail and self-restraint to make it work. The movie must be about more than its issue or disease. Philadelphia knew this, and so did Forrest Gump and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Even The Insider, which I was not a big fan of, knew that it was the people – not the issues alone – that made the subject matter interesting.

The problem is this: John Q never rises above the simplicity of its advertising. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen all the build up there is – John Q has a great family, John has troubles making ends meet, John’s kid gets sick, John has a montage of hitting a wall of red tape, John decides to take over the hospital. The disease and circumstances are plot devices and little more. The hospital officials are so instantly evil and uncaring that John’s attempts to work out a financial arrangement are doomed from the start. Every aspect of his character’s financial situation is simplified to the generic; every moment is shortened so we can get to the good hostage stuff sooner. There are real people who get lost in the cracks of our health care system everyday, but this film considers its audience too stupid to understand the complex reasons why.

Let me be clear: It would be one thing if the film had the officials explaining in the piles of jargon why he could not receive coverage, and that he would be left confused and bewildered. It is believable that most of us would get lost in the lawyer-speak and do anything to save our children. But all we get as the audience is “No, we can’t save your son. We don’t care. Bye now, you filthy poor person.” John simply gets screwed by everyone and goes postal.

There is a great movie that will be made about the need for health care in this country. This movie is not that movie. It wants desperately to be everything to everybody: an epic statement movie, hostage movie, family drama, thriller, The Negotiator-rip off and media satire all at once. It fails on every level imaginable, except in the quiet scenes between Washington and his son. Good actors sink around him while he flounders about, trying to make the movie work. He earns his paycheck at the end of the day, and if we care at all about John it is due only to the heavy lifting he does onscreen. Everyone else should be ashamed of themselves.

There are good actors in this movie, or at least actors who have risen to the occasion in the past: James Woods, Anne Heche, Robert Duvall, Ray Liotta, comedian Eddie Griffith, Ethan Suplee (Blow and Evolution) all turn in stock, forgettable performances. While the lines and characters they were given were admittedly awful, they could have at least looked like they gave a damn. Woods and Liotta, in particular, should have gotten slapped around by the director before they nodded off.

Then again, director Nick Cassavetes should have gotten slapped once or twice himself. So should the writers. In fact, everyone deserves a big fat slapping for this movie except for Washington himself. There are awkward moments where the blood and reality of ER meets the golly-gee-shucks humor of Friends. The side characters are shallow and straight out bad sitcoms and dart board screenwriting (“Okay, let’s have a –thunk-

pregnant woman, and a-thunk-fat security guard, and, hmm, we need a token black guy and…”) The ending is particularly painful, as it wants to be mega-happy and sadly epic at the same time. Does the kid live? Do we get a trial scene? Is there a montage of real life activists calling for healthcare reform? Hello?

The draw of this film was that a father would be driven to break the law in order to save his son, and damn the consequences. The film ends with a stunned John Q, unable to comprehend that he might go to jail for what he has done. And most of the hostages are right there with him, standing by their captor.

There is not a moment of the hostage stuff in John Q that isn’t artificial, stagy, contrived or just plain wrong. You want to stand up and scream, No, no no, this is all wrong, this should be better, you can do better. Only Washington’s efforts make the film worth watching at all, whereas Willis is the only thing that distracts you from the story and acting of Hart’s War.

Who knows what will happen next? Probably not John Q 2, or for that matter Hart’s War 2. But hey, if you had told me a year ago that a sequel to a Chris Tucker/Jackie Chan movie would make over 200 million dollars, I’d said you were crazy. If you had also said that a Bruce Willis war movie would be better than a Denzel Washington drama coming out the same day, I’d have said you were really crazy. Crazy, it seems, is the way to go. Kung Pow 2, here we come.


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