Video of the Week: Denzel in 'John Q'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  July 15, 2002 at 12:17 PM
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LOS ANGELES, July 15 (UPI) -- On Tuesday, "John Q" comes out on DVD (list price $26.98) and VHS ($22.94). The modestly budgeted melodrama grossed a solidly profitable $71 million at the box office earlier this year.

That's not surprising because "John Q" is based on every American parent's nightmare. Plus, it stars two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington, who deservedly appeals to men and women, critics and ticket buyers alike.

Something seems strange, though, about "John Q," in which Denzel plays a blue-collar father who learns his HMO won't pay the $250,000 needed for a heart transplant to save his dying son.

Sure, this premise is obviously primed with emotional hooks. And who doesn't hate his HMO or worry that he'll be between insurers just when his kid needs coverage most?

Yet, as powerful as "John Q's" plot device is, to a guy like me, this just doesn't sound like a movie you pay money to see. Instead, it resembles a classic Disease-of-the-Week TV movie.

Television caters to female tastes because women are the main target of advertisers. Why? Because women purchase most of the stuff sold to American consumers. By my calculations, each year U.S. men hand over as much as a trillion dollars of their earnings to their womenfolk to spend.

Movie tickets, however, are one kind of expenditure that men tend to keep under their own control. That's why male tastes largely rule at the multiplex. Of the 18 movies from 2001 that grossed over $100 million, only "The Princess Diaries" was aimed predominantly at females.

Us guys especially don't want to pay to watch medical movies. We don't even want to think about our own health worries.

Take me, for instance. Back in 1996, I kept telling myself that my pains and night sweats were probably nothing. When my wife finally forced me to see a doctor, he turned out to be a Real Man, too. He told me not to worry about the golf ball-sized lump in my armpit. It's probably just a pulled muscle, he advised.

I finally went to a doctor who didn't suffer from testosterone poisoning of the brain, and learned I had non-Hodgkin's lymphatic cancer, stage 4B. (The next stage is: you die.)

Fortunately, I had terrific insurance -- if the experimental monoclonal antibody hadn't worked, I would have been covered for a last-ditch $150,000 stem cell transplant at the superb Fred Hutchinson clinic in Seattle.

So, here I am. But, even after all that, I still don't want to watch films about other people's diseases. Unless ... the movie also has lots of guns, cops, and some favorite Real Man actors in tense standoffs that threaten to explode into violence at any moment.

Which is exactly what "John Q" has. It's a calculated attempt to meld a lady's TV doctor movie with a guy's action thriller.

Broke and desperate, Washington's character John Q. Archibald pulls out a pistol and takes everyone in the hospital emergency room hostage, demanding that the evil money-hungry administrator (Anne Heche) put his kid's name on the top of the list of heart recipients.

(Doesn't that mean, however, that somebody else's kid on the bottom of the list will die instead?)

The cast is far above TV-movie quality. Washington's role, though, could have used a little "Training Day" harshness. A movie about a man becoming a saint is more affecting if he starts out as a bit of a sinner, not just as a really nice guy.

Three veteran character leads from classic Guy Movies are perfectly cast, although their roles are uninspired. James Woods ("Salvador") plays a brilliant but arrogant cardiologist. All-time great Robert Duvall ("The Great Santini") is the wily but warm-hearted hostage negotiator. Ray Liotta ("Goodfellas"), whose handsome but slightly deformed features make him wonderfully unreliable-looking, is the popular but devious police chief who wants to shoot Washington.

I sniffled several times and my wife cried through all the scenes between Denzel and his ill son. Yet, she still held "John Q" in contempt because its script (by a former "Highway to Heaven" TV writer) is preachy, shallow, derivative and ethically dubious.

The director, an old high school classmate of mine, himself has a 14-year-old daughter who needs a donor for a lifesaving organ transplant. Despite school loyalty and personal sympathy, however, I have to say that I despised his direction. He seemed to go out of his way to insult the audience's intelligence, repeatedly choosing the phoniest way available to stage a scene.

The ending, in which a slew of left-of-center celebrities like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and the Rev. Jesse Jackson come on screen to promote nationalized medicine, is bafflingly counter-productive. Why go out of your way to alienate the 100 million or so people who dislike Hillary and Jesse? Why not let the emotional potency of the situation make your political point for you?

(Rated a mild PG-13 for language and moderate violence.)

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