Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:58 - Released 2/15/02

Actor-turned-director Nick Cassavetes (She's So Lovely) joins forces with TV writer James Kearns (Jake and the Fatman) to produce a sincere but manipulative tear-jerker about a good man who cracks under the pressure of society. Boy, have I been there. Starring in this well-meaning weeper is Denzel Washington, the original "good man," scaling back his criminal instincts from last October's Training Day until we feel him as one of us, a desperate slob who, when his young son needs an expensive operation that his insurance company won't pay for, is forced to take the law into his own hands. Also present, and overqualified, are Robert Duvall and James Woods, who are both so underused one wonders why the producers shelled out the bucks for them. Maybe it was just the omnidirectional system-bashing message they were eager to get behind. Not content to merely extoll the virtues of standing up for oneself, the film vilifies hospitals, HMOs, police, and the media in a self-righteous treatise on the plight of the working class hero.

Washington is Chicago millworker John Q. Archibald, whose recent reduction to 20 hours per week has him searching for a second job to pay the bills. He and his wife Denise (Kimberly Elise) eke out a living with their young son Mike (Daniel E. Smith), but when he collapses during a Little League baseball game, they rush him to the hospital and find that he is suffering from a long undiagnosed heart illness, and needs a new heart immediately. While cardiologist Dr. Turner (Woods) recommends immediate action, hospital director Rebecca Payne (Anne Heche) is not so eager, since John's insurance carrier does not cover this kind of surgery. With the self-serving iciness that is apparently the primary job qualification for hospital directors, Ms. Payne informs John that if he can't come up with the $75,000 down payment, Mike's name won't even be placed on the recipient list.

John tries desperately to raise the money, doing everything from selling his car to accepting the offerings collected by his church, but when Mike's condition worsens and Denise is informed that the boy is about to be discharged, John decides he must take desperate measures. He pulls a gun and takes the entire emergency room hostage, including several patients and nurses, and the good doctor, too, claiming that he will start shooting if his son isn't given the operation. Soon the hospital is swarmed with law enforcement officials and news media, including crafty Lieutenant Grimes (Duvall), patronizing Police Chief Monro (Ray Liotta), and ambitious newsman Tuck Lampley (Paul Johansson), whose characterization is so trite he looks on the entire situation as a golden opportunity for wealth, actually uttering the words, "This is my white Bronco."

This film reminds me of 1997's Mad City, which had John Travolta taking a bunch of school kids and a museum director at gunpoint to save his job. The difference is that this film actually seems to encourage this sort of vigilante justice, portraying John as an unqualified hero whose desperate methods eventually pay off. Besides the film's pro-vigilante bent, there are numerous instances of emotionally overblown pandering, moments when director Cassavetes may as well have flashed the words "cry now" on the screen.

But of course, then you have the actors. Washington, Woods, and Duvall are so capable, they almost save this schlock-fest from itself. Their technique covers a multitude of sins, and Cassavetes knows that. Good for him. Bad for us. ***½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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