Its heart is in the right place, but John Q. is too clumsy to make us care.

Snoozie Q 

Its heart is in the right place, but John Q. is too clumsy to make us care.

Following his Oscar-nominated change-of-pace performance in Training Day, Denzel Washington returns in John Q. to more familiar turf in another of his trademark roles as One of the Best Human Beings in the World. The opening scenes establish quickly that John Q. Archibald is the finest possible incarnation of the American Everyman: He works hard at a Chicago steel plant, sings in church and loves his wife, Denise (Kimberly Elise), and nine-year-old son, Mike (Daniel E. Smith). But times are tough. John's work hours have been cut, and even with his wife's taking a job, the Archibalds are having trouble paying their bills.

This sad and altogether believable setup is blown to bits by tragedy when little Mike collapses in the middle of a ball game. It's discovered that he has a long-undiagnosed heart defect that will kill him within weeks unless he can get a transplant. John, who has always opted for the maximum available medical coverage, is confident his insurance will take care of it. But it turns out that his employer has recently switched health plans and that John, having been temporarily cut back to part-time, has been bumped down to less-comprehensive coverage -- far below the level required for a heart transplant.

The hospital administrator -- a frosty Anne Heche playing another of her stock roles -- explains that the only other option is for John to raise a $75,000 deposit to cover a third of the expenses. Even after the sympathetic cardiac surgeon (James Woods) agrees to waive his fee, the Archibalds have sold off their every possession and their friends and neighbors have chipped in every possible dime, they are still woefully short of the required amount.

With Mike's vital signs dropping quickly and no obvious way out, our hero comes up with an unobvious way: Gun in hand, he takes the cardiac surgeon and everyone in the emergency room hostage, demanding that Mike be placed on the heart-transplant waiting list, money be damned. Veteran hostage negotiator Frank Grimes (Robert Duvall) is dispatched to the scene but soon finds his delicate control of the situation being compromised by the image-conscious chief of police (Ray Liotta), who wants John eliminated now.

John Q. clearly aspires to dress a crucial social issue--the need for universal-health-care legislation -- 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 commercial elements are often ham-fisted: The climactic cliffhanger sequence is both murkily executed and dependent on egregious coincidence, and director Nick Cassavetes drags out every tearjerking moment beyond the point of tolerability. To work in its points about predatory HMOs, government inaction and public indifference to the crisis in health care, the film occasionally grinds to a halt for flat debate.

The film has its virtues, primarily among the performances. Washington is always worth watching, even in a role written with as few complexities as this one. Like Washington and Heche, Duvall and Liotta are essentially playing types with which they've become associated, allowing the less-familiar supporting actors to leave stronger impressions.

Because of its excesses, John Q. comes dangerously close to overstaying its welcome. Pushing toward the two-hour mark, it's a film that might have made its points more convincingly if its makers hadn't felt obliged to underline and spell out each of them at length.

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