James Woods is a blistering and talented actor who could probably take on a greater range of roles than Hollywood allows, but it was a mischievous day in casting-call hell when the creators of John Q. decided to have him play a heart surgeon. Woods, with his steely, flat-cheeked glower, looks like a man who has barely, if ever, felt his own heart beating. It’s his job to inform John Q. Archibald (Denzel Washington), a financially strapped factory worker, that Archibald’s son will die unless he receives a heart transplant. Surgeons aren’t known for their bedside manner, but to say that Woods fails to show sympathy would be an understatement. He looks, and sounds, about as compassionate as a man ordering a lap dance. In ”John Q.,” Woods is part of the demon medical establishment, and so is Anne Heche, who plays the hospital’s head administrator as a particularly clipped breed of fascist android. With medical professionals like these, who needs HMOs? Informed that his company insurance plan won’t cover a transplant, Archibald is forced to come up with $250,000 all by himself. He tries and tries, even selling off his furniture, but there’s no way that the desperate family man, awash in nobility, can begin to make the payment. Driven over the edge, he wanders into the hospital with a gun and proceeds to take everyone in the emergency room hostage.
”John Q.” is a crude populist rabble-rouser that raises genuine, sobering questions about the way the American medical establishment, hijacked by the insurance companies, has relegated the very structure of health care to the bottom line. That’s a subject that’s long overdue for a good, honest, suspenseful muckraker. But the director, Nick Cassavetes, working from a script by James Kearns, has concocted a dishonest one. Cassavetes thinks he’s making ”Dog Day Afternoon” with a cause, but all he’s done is to reduce everything he touches to a shrill, didactic cartoon. None of the details feels authentic, from the scowling inhumanity of the physicians to the ER waiting room that’s hilariously bereft of patients. (Cassavetes’ staging is so inept that there barely seems to be anyone in the hospital.)
Washington performs with a tearful, righteous anger; he puts us in touch with how a decent, worn-down-by-the-system father could be driven to pick up a gun. But there’s a crucial difference between a drama that portrays that anger, even sees the courage in it, and one that simplistically salutes a character’s self-destructive actions as a practical method of solving problems. The subject of corporate medical injustice cries out for an understanding of the issues as they affect us all, but ”John Q.” is too busy stacking decks and settling scores. How many people, after all, are really in a position to demand a heart transplant? The movie could have used a brain transplant. It doesn’t explore injustice — it just exploits it.