Why John Q. doesn't make sense.

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Feb. 21 2002 12:06 PM

Plot Holes: John Q.

Movie still

Here at "Plot Holes," the months between December and May are a fertile time, the dumping ground for movies that aren't thrilling enough to be Christmas or summer fluff and aren't serious enough for back-to-school autumn. Take the Denzel Washington vehicle John Q.—about a blue-collar type who takes hostages at a hospital in order to get his son a heart transplant—which stops making sense shortly after the opening credits. (Warning: Plot Holes gives away crucial twists, so stop reading now if you don't want to know.)

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The happy hostages. One of the hostages, a woman-beating tough named Mitch, maces John, knocks his gun away, and wrestles with him while Mitch yells at his girlfriend to get the gun. Instead, she picks up the can of mace and uses it on Mitch. It's her moment of liberation from her abusive boyfriend, and the other hostages cheer her on. But apparently none of them can be bothered with their own liberation: No one thinks to pick up the gun, which just sits there until John retrieves it. Maybe they're all happy being hostages and at the mercy of a man who's threatened to kill them.

The medical mumbo jumbo. After hours of negotiation and a botched takedown by the most incompetent SWAT team ever filmed, John resorts to Plan B: He prepares to shoot himself and have his heart transplanted into his son's body. The film says this is possible because the son's defective heart is three sizes too large, so his chest cavity can accommodate an adult heart. This isn't as nutty as it sounds—children do sometimes receive adult hearts—but only if their height and weight are fairly similar. Since Denzel looks about three times the size of the kid who plays his son, this particular transplant probably wouldn't have worked. Not that it matters, thanks to ...

The strangely well-informed doctors. A donor heart isfound, and hospital personnel run frantically to tell John the news. But why frantically? It's almost as if they know John is lying on a hospital gurney about to blow his brains out. But only we know this. They're also forgetting one of the film's major plot points: If the hospital gives in to John's demands, it will spark copycat terrorism in hospitals across the country.

The clueless cops. After the donor heart arrives, the nonmedical hostages are released, and John Q. surrenders to the police. Except it's not John Q.; it's Lester, the street-smart hostage played by Eddie Griffin, who's wearing John's clothes. John is still inside the hospital, dressed in scrubs so he can make sure his son's operation goes smoothly. This is a rare treat—the double plot hole:

Why is this subterfuge even necessary? Can't John wait until the donor heart is safely in his son's chest, and then release the hostages and surrender?

And why do the police fall for it so easily? Even if you're a member of the "They all look alike" contingent (the film's unstated critique of cops), Griffin virtually swims in Washington's jacket. Worse, once "John Q." is taken into custody, no cops swarm into the emergency room to cordon off the crime scene or to see if anyone's been killed, or maimed, or is willing to testify. They all just leave. Only Lt. Grimes (Robert Duvall) realizes what's happened, and only he enters the hospital to confront the real John Q. Which at least gives us the Hollywood reason for the ruse: It allows Grimes, the good cop, to appear smarter than Police Chief Monroe (Ray Liotta), the bad cop.

The lunk-headed politics. According to the film, everyone is in favor of universal health care. If that were true, I wouldn't be paying $200 a month for COBRA.

Erik Lundegaard has written for the New York Times, the Believer, and MSNBC.