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John Q

(2002) ** Pg-13
118 min. New Line. Director: Nick Cassavetes. Cast: Denzel Washington, Robert Duvall, Kimberly Elise, Anne Heche, James Woods.

Not unlike its recent predecessor I Am Sam,, John Q strands good actors in mushy, movie-of-the-week material. It's tempting to give a provisional recommendation baed on Denzel Washington's performance alone, but this derivative melodrama is an iffy expenditure of two hours even in the comfort of your home.

In a move emblematic of the weak judgement behind the film, director Nick Cassavetes (She's So Lovely) punches up the opening with a scene that drains much of the suspense out of the central conflict of the film: will Denzel Washington's ailing kid (an over-the-top Daniel E. Smith) get the donated organ he needs to survive? Washington, saddled with the name of John Q. Archibald (wait, I get it! John Q. Public! Gee, makes you think, don't it?), gets a rollercoaster of character arcs, with scenes from the class struggle (he can't pay the family's bills), the domestic bliss before the storm (John Q's wife, played by Kimberly Elise, momentarily puts aside her tenacious marital pressure for those), and the hostage standoff which dominates the picture. All provide memorable moments. Cassavetes has the patience to observe a word game with the whole family piled in a truck (or perhaps he wouldn't dare sacrifice one of the film's only believable moments), and certainly the hostage situation, as hoary as it's become, provides high drama, especially with the shadings Washington brings them.

But for the most part, John Q represents Hollywood's laziest qualities. In recent years, we've seen working-man Michael Douglas lose it, dogged by Robert Duvall amid a media frenzy, in Falling Down, working-man John Travolta lose it, dogged by Dustin Hoffman amid a media frenzy in Mad City, working-man Samuel L. Jackson lose it, dogged by Kevin Spacey amid a media frenzy in The Negotiator, and now Washington, dogged by...Robert Duvall? Guess they ran out of Oscar-friendly actors. The whole damn genre is an outgrowth of Dog Day Afternoon, which besides being a great movie, now qualifies as downright seminal.

In another trend that doesn't seem to be going away, John Q is populated with a one-dimensional ensemble of second-tier talent and "central casting" players. Here, it's Remember the Titans's Ethan Suplee as an obese rent-a-cop (sans gun), the domestic-violence poster couple (callow Shawn Hatosy plays the unrepentant ass), wisecracking "comic relief" Eddie Griffin, and so on and so forth and so what.

The "so what," it turns out, is an indictment of the deadly insinuation of HMOs. The subject matter (though obvious) is worthy, but this is not the film to explore the issues (it's the wrong kind of Cassavetes movie). James Woods and Anne Heche (along with Ray Liotta, filling out the first tier of the cast) are painted as self-absorbed Scrooges in need of a moral makeover. Accordingly, you'll hear nary a convincing defense of the "evil" hospital system. In keeping with the film's class-struggle undercurrent, the hospital orderlies and nurses are all angels, in contrast to the rich devil doctors and administrators.

Among the sprawling cast, only Washington registers. So for those (like me) who hate to miss a Washington performance, here's an acting master class. But here's hoping Denzel does us a favor and digs up less facile material next time.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1; Dolby Digital 5.1

Street date: 4/7/2009

Distributor: New Line

The nice-priced Blu-ray debut of John Q sports a beaut of a high-def transfer that's free of digital artifacting and distinguished by generally superb sharpness and color, especially given that the film is now seven years old. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround mix likewise presents the film at its best possible advantage, with lossless clarity.

All of the DVD's extensive bonus features are repackaged here, beginning with the Infinifilm Focus Points accessible during playback ("experience the process of bringing John Q to the screen"); an in-depth commentary by director Nick Cassavetes, screenwriter James Kearns, producer Mark Burg and director of photography Rogier Stoffers; and a Fact Track (a "subtitle track that reveals history, facts, and other trivia related to John Q").

"Fighting for Care" (34:27, SD) is "an in-depth look at the extreme difficulty Americans face in getting organ transplants and medical treatments."

"Behind the Scenes of John Q" (16:56, SD) is a "featurette with insights into the movie's message, plus interviews with" Denzel Washington, Cassavetes, Burg, Kimberly Elise, Robert Duvall, Ray Liotta, Anne Heche, James Woods, heart transplant consultant Dr. Mehmet Oz, body effects designer Alec Gillis, and Daniel E. Smith.

Six "Deleted/Alternate Scenes" (21:00 with "Play All" option, HD) come with optional commentary by Cassavetes, and we also get the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:28, HD). Denzel Washington (and Blu) completists can pick this up for under $14, but casual viewers may want to take a pass due to the film's mediocrity.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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