John Q (2002)


Did I just walk into The Twilight Zone, or did Hollywood just release a post-9/11 film featuring an immaculately uniformed and decorated police chief as a bad guy, and a gun-wielding, hostage-taking terrorist as the hero?

It must be the latter, because the police chief is played by Ray Liotta, and the hostage-taking terrorist is played by Denzel Washington, who might — just might — get cast as a bad guy (cf. Training Day) — but not in any movie that also features Ray Liotta.

2002, New Line. Directed by Nick Cassavetes. Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, James Woods, Anne Heche, Ray Liotta, Kimberly Elise, Daniel E. Smith.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value


Age Appropriateness


MPAA Rating


Caveat Spectator

Gun-related menace and sometimes bloody violence; explicit depiction of heart surgery; offscreen domestic battery; recurring crude language and some profanity; morally confused treatment of terrorist actions.

John Q, which is sort of the moviegoing equivalent of being taken hostage, was directed by Nick Cassavetes (She’s So Lovely). Cassavetes — like the film’s hero, John Q. Archibald (Washington) — has a child in need of a life-saving organ transplant. I feel for the director, and for his hero. I cannot condone the actions of either.

John’s actions involve pointing a gun at innocent people, holding them hostage, threatening to kill them, telling lies, and becoming morally culpable for the potential loss of at least one life (more I can’t say without revealing a key plot point). This is precisely terrorism: harming or threatening to harm innocent people in order to make other people do what you want.

Cassavetes’s actions involve making a movie that depicts John’s small-scale terrorism as heroic and admirable. John Q wants us to feel indignation for the injustice of a system that won’t even put a dying boy’s name on an waiting list for an organ transplant unless his father can come up with the money for the operation; but the film is as morally confused about John’s actions as John himself is. "What John does is heroic, but we don’t condone it," one of the film’s stars recently said, a tortuous comment that perfectly illustrates the picture’s moral schizophrenia. What else can you say about a movie that makes a hero out of a man with a gun, then throws in a speech about how bad guns are?

John makes his point with a gun and fiery determination. Cassavetes makes his with ham-fisted unsubtlety, blatant manipulation, embarrassingly stereotyped characters and clichéd situations, thuddingly preachy dialogue, bludgeoning musical cues, and finally even a string of celebrity cameos by Jay Leno, Hillary Clinton, and Bill Maher calling for healthcare reform (as well as a brief cameo by recently deceased director Ted Demme [The Ref], sitting next to someone calling for healthcare reform).

John has a crowd standing outside the hospital ER in which he makes his stand, cheering him on. I hope there won’t be crowds in theaters cheering for Cassavetes. I really hope there will be no one in emergency rooms following the example of Cassavetes’s hero.

Cassavetes does have one good idea: HMOs and insurance companies are evil, and hospital bureaucracy, like bureaucracy generally, can be inhuman and dehumanizing. But when you have Anne Heche as an ice-cold, money-grubbing hospital administrator named Payne saying such things as "Make this a happy time; say good-bye" and "People get sick, they die, that’s the way it goes" — well, I for one, instead of feeling righteous indignation, feel jerked around by the film.

Actually, Cassavetes had two good ideas. The second one was to get Denzel Washington. Washington, who garnered a best-actor Oscar nomination for his anti-hero turn in Training Day, is back in righteous form, and nobody does it better. More than three-quarters of the way through John Q, long after I had given up on the picture, Washington still made what could have been a trite and maudlin scene with his dying son heart-rendingly moving.

Washington has spent much of his career giving four-star performances in three-star films. Yet not even he can make this misguided, manipulative picture worth watching. This is the kind of movie where we know the hero is the hero because he wears a suit to church and sings "Jesus Loves Me," even though his hours at work have been slashed in half and his wife’s car has been repossessed. Denise isn’t very happy about the car, but feel the love: The whole family piles into John’s truck where they pass the time playing a silly word game, and John and Denise thumb-wrestle (yes, while John drives). How could you not love a family like that?

John Q isn’t content with putting John and Denise’s son Mike (Daniel E. Smith) in a hospital bed, or with having a surgeon named Dr. Turner (James Woods) break the news of Mike’s heart condition to John and Denise in clinical terminology they don’t even understand. It has to hammer home what’s at stake by having John watch — not once but twice — as someone else’s child dies in a nearby bed. On one of these occasions, no sooner is the sheet pulled over the kid’s head than hospital staff begin wheeling the bed out of the room, ignoring the screams of the grieving mother to be allowed to hold her child. (Whoever heard of a hospital that didn’t allow the bereaved family to grieve with the body?)

Why doesn’t John’s insurance cover the operation? Why, of course his employer shafted him by changing his insurance status without telling him. John does everything in his power to fight the system, but gets nowhere. John and Denise sell or pawn all their possessions, take up special collections at church, do whatever they can to raise some of the cash Payne demands before she’ll put Mike’s name on the organ recipient list.

Then, days after making a partial payment to the hospital, John learns that, in spite of all his efforts, the hospital is discharging his son. John goes to Dr. Turner and makes a last, desperate plea not to discharge his son, appealing to him "as a man." Turner’s response: "Please take your hands off me."

That’s when John pulls out the gun (where he gets it from, when they’ve pawned even their wedding rings, is unexplained). John locks down the ER, takes everybody inside hostage, and declares the hospital "under new management — free health care for everybody." Instantly, he’s a hero to at least some of his hostages, particularly comic Eddie Griffin (Double Take), who’s there to be a funny black man providing comedy relief.

But not to Shawn Hatosy (Down to You), a racist jerk who’s there to make John look more heroic, and to give him someone to beat up. Accompanying Racist Jerk is a skimpily dressed young woman who’s broken her arm, supposedly in a car crash, though it seems apparent to everyone that Racist Jerk is a batterer. Sooner or later Jerk tries to take John out, but the fight ends with Jerk on the floor and his suddenly liberated girlfriend kicking Jerk in the groin — a move that prompts Funny Black Man to whistle admiringly, "All that a-- and muscles, too!"

Would this hostage scenario be complete without a pregnant woman about to deliver and a crying baby whose mother speaks no English? (We’ll never know now, will we?) They’re there for John to release later on, so they can tell the media and the cheering crowd what a very good man John is. Just in case we’ve forgotten that important point by the end of the movie, Funny Black Man shows up at the end of the movie to tell John, "You’re my hero."

In one scene John’s hostages find time to hold a round-table discussion on health care, led by an angry young doctor who argues passionately that HMOs pay doctors not to test, and hospitals merely stabilize and then release seriously ill patients who can’t afford the care they really need. Here we get the kind of dialogue where one person says accusingly, "What’s that oath you doctors take? The Hippocratic Oath?" and then another mutters, "More like the hypocritic oath."

On the other side of the chained doors are a seasoned police negotiator (Robert Duvall), who wants to talk John down, and Ray Liotta’s police chief, who wants to get a sniper to shoot John. Liotta’s character makes no sense: One minute he’s worried about the political ramifications if any of the hostages are killed ("I can live with the death of one bad guy; what I can’t live with is one dead hostage, not one") — yet, moments later with Duvall protesting, "What about the hostages — the human beings?" Liotta says casually: "They better keep their heads down."

Neither cop has much to do; but why was Duvall’s part beefed up afterwards by having him escorting John to and from the courtroom? Do police negotiators commonly pull that kind of duty?

More useless than either Duvall or Liotta is a tabloid-TV reporter who only cares about what a great story he has ("This is my white Bronco!"). His character is so sloppily written that, when he asks a man in the crowd (who happens to be a friend of John) for his opinion of the situation, he allows the man to ramble to the camera for nearly a full minute. When did you ever a reporter allow a man on the street more than a brief sound bite in a live TV report?

There is one scene that really had me on the edge of my seat: John’s wife Denise starts to tell Anne Heche, "I’d tell you what I think of you…" — and suddenly I wondered if we were going to get the rest of Aunt Em’s line from The Wizard of Oz. Sure enough, she concludes: "…but I’m a Christian woman." Of course, that got me thinking all about The Wizard of Oz. Visions of Denzel singing "If I Only Had a Heart" and Anne Heche on a broomstick spelling out "Surrender John Q" in smoky letters in the sky went through my head. In the end, I left the theater murmurring to myself, "There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…"

Action, Bad Denzel, Drama, Thriller