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John Q: infinifilm

As a "message movie" with earnest aims, Nick Cassavetes' John Q (2002) gets its points across loud and clear. But as a drama, it fails spectacularly, with only some affable performances able to transcend a lot of lecturing dialogue and plot clichés. Denzel Washington stars as John Quincy Archibald, a working man with a caring, devoted wife, Denise (Kimberly Elise). Their young son Mike (Daniel E. Smith) plays baseball and wants to be a bodybuilder when he gets older. But after Mike collapses during a little league game and is rushed to the hospital, it's determined he has a rare heart defect that has caused his heart to swell to three times its normal size, while his blood pressure is dangerously low. John and Denise are told by cardiologist Dr. Turner (James Woods) and hospital administrator Rebecca Payne (Anne Heche) that only a heart transplant will save Mike's life. But the family's limited insurance doesn't cover such a costly procedure, and after it appears Mike will be sent home to die, John decides to force the issue by taking Dr. Turner and others hostage at gunpoint, closing down the hospital's emergency room and demanding his son be placed on the donor list. Which, of course, brings in the cops (Robert Duvall, Ray Liotta) in the hopes of successfully negotiating an end to the siege. No matter what good intentions may have inspired the film, John Q is both uninspired filmmaking and nebulous nonsense. A hostage drama is one thing, and already done to near perfection in Dog Day Afternoon. Had John Q strictly focused on the events that caused John to become so unhinged he would start waving a gun in innocent people's faces, it may have had enough power to be convincing. The problem is that John never really is off his rocker, and the hostage crisis he creates is portrayed heroically by the filmmakers — a necessary conceit, as John Q exists to instruct more than to entertain. With its many asides and debates criticizing the U.S. health care system, it's about as exciting as a film about gun control or a flat tax. Yes, it's possible that we could improve the ways that the private sector, the insurance industry, hospital foundations, and the government cooperate to deliver medical services. No, we don't like it when little children die. But public-policy debates are vastly complicated things, in particular universal health care, unified risk pools, and single-payer systems. Movies are simple — they are pleasant diversions that suspend our disbelief and manipulate our emotions. But combine the two and we have a political commercial with big-name actors. Less policy issues would have helped John Q, particularly with its fine cast. Then again, we still get hammered with such clichés as the negotiator trying to trade favors for hostages, a rescue attempt by the cops that goes all wrong, and a zealous TV reporter who — surprise — is an opportunistic asshole. And after John becomes an instant folk hero thanks to the TV coverage, crowds appear behind the police barricades to cheer the gunman and hiss at the cops — which is not only preposterous, but also indicates what lowbrow cues the filmmakers are willing to employ to ensure that the audience's sympathies are correctly aligned. After all, it's hard to remember anybody ever cheering on a hostage crisis. New Line's DVD release of John Q is part of their "infinifilm" series, and extra features are generous. The "infinifilm" format offers several short segments from the feature-set available "on the fly" while viewing the film. Meanwhile, the features themselves (viewable individually) include a commentary from director Cassavetes, scenarist James Kearns, producer Mark Burg, and director of photography Rogier Stoffers; the documentary "Fighting for Care" (34 min.), which interviews several folks in the health-care industry, generally supports a universal health-care system, and is rather dry; a behind-the-scenes featurette (17 min.) with cast and crew interviews; six deleted/alternate scenes with commentary; a "Fact Track" available as subtitles; the theatrical press kit; and the trailer. Keep-case.

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