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Film could use some surgery, too

'John Q.' should have capitalized on the hot-button issue of health care in America, but it didn't

There's a great scene in John Ford's film of 'The Grapes of Wrath' where a bank representative is throwing an Okie family off the land they've worked for generations. Asked who's to blame, he offers a litany of who must answer to whom Ñ the branch to the bank to the corporation and on and on Ñ until the frustrated farmer asks, 'So who do we shoot?'

It's a question that John Q. Archibald, the character played by Denzel Washington in 'John Q.,' has been driven to ask himself, while the hostages he has taken in a hospital emergency room await his decision.

John is a Chicago factory worker already behind on his bills when he learns that his young son (Daniel E. Smith) needs an emergency heart transplant. Denied by his insurance company and refused for consideration by the hospital where the boy's condition is worsening, John makes a desperate decision. He barricades himself in the emergency room after taking a heart surgeon (James Woods) hostage at gunpoint.

Soon the police arrive, a veteran hostage negotiator (Robert Duvall) butts heads with a trigger-happy and publicity-hungry police chief (Ray Liotta), and a media circus is born.

There's no denying the hot-button status of health care in America, a genuine 'who do we shoot?' issue for the millions who aren't rich enough to afford to get sick.

It's easy to engage an audience's sympathies for the problem but much harder to resolve it in realistic fashion. Actually, in a Hollywood movie, the problem isn't so much resolving it realistically as it is ending things happily enough to satisfy an audience and ensure good box office returns.

This struggle, rather than health care itself, becomes the real substance of 'John Q.' As written by James Kearns and directed by Nick Cassavetes (son of the late actor-director John Cassavetes), the film betrays the seriousness and difficulty of the issue with heart-tugging grandstand plays and crowd-pleasing contrivances.

As the too appropriately named populist hero, Washington is powerful, as always. Nobody does righteousness as well Ñ or, unfortunately, as often.

After taking a commanding whack at villainy in 'Training Day,' he's doing paragon duty again in another earnest, stolid vehicle that plays like an Oscar campaign. Virtually every movie he makes anymore requires seeing his excellent and neglected 'Devil in a Blue Dress' as a corrective measure.

As both a participant in and a victim of the system, Woods' heart surgeon emerges as the most intriguing character. But his role is as unrewarding as those of the other supporting players. And as gripping as things are meant to be, the emergency room hostages constantly threaten to become a sitcom ensemble.

The makers of 'John Q.' clearly want us to think about the health care crisis, but by resolving things so conveniently the issue loses its urgency.

Do they want to make a tough drama about grim realities or a Tinseltown tear-jerker, a Strangelovian black comedy or a Capraesque inspirational tale? Which movie do they shoot? In this case, the wrong one.