Dear John

Snoozie Q.: Despite some virtues, John Q. is too ham-fisted to achieve its ambitions.

John Q. Archibald (Denzel Washington), a perfect working-class Everyman, is struggling just to make ends meet; bad turns to way worse when his 9-year-old son (Daniel E. Smith) is suddenly diagnosed with a heart defect that will kill him within weeks unless he can get a transplant. But John, who has always made sure that his family has adequate medical insurance, now discovers that his employer has cut back to a lower level of coverage that won't pay for his little boy's operation. Having exhausted all other options, John gets a gun and takes the cardiac surgeon (James Woods) and everyone in the emergency room hostage, demanding that Mike be placed on the heart-transplant waiting list, money be damned.

John Q. clearly aspires to couch discussion of a crucial social issue--the need for (and righteousness of) universal health care--in the garb of a palatable, mass-market thriller. It's a fine ambition, but one that the film, hampered by clunkiness on both fronts, only partly fulfills. The more commercial elements are often ham-fisted; at the same time, director Nick Cassavetes and writer James Kearns occasionally have the film grind to a halt for flat debate about the issues. The film does have its virtues, primarily among the performances. Washington is always worth watching, even in a role written with as few complexities as this one. Also aboard for the ride are Anne Heche (as a frosty hospital administrator), Robert Duvall (as a hostage negotiator) and Ray Liotta (as a camera-hungry chief of police).

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