By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Feb 16, 2002 at 5:24 AM

An admirable message movie is difficult to pull off. Most resort to shameless preaching and simplified moralizing, undermining the importance and seriousness of the issue. Subtlety and class are not present, and ultimately Hollywood takes over.

Despite a stellar cast, an intriguing premise and a great trailer, "John Q" is such a movie. It becomes so far-fetched and preposterous, resorting to cliché and hokum every chance it gets, you'll want to visit your HMO just to ease the pain. A heavy dose of morphine should be administered as a courtesy to viewers prior to viewing this trifle.

Denzel Washington, recently nominated for an Oscar for his riveting performance in "Training Day," is John Q. Archibald. John is a hard-working man with a wife, Denise (Kimberly Elise) and young son, Mike (Daniel E. Smith).


They are a close family, honest and decent people with no lack of love for one another. But times are tough. John's hours at a factory have been cut back and one of the family's automobiles has been repossessed. John is searching for another job, and Denise is always on his case about something.

Without warning, tragedy strikes. Mike collapses during a baseball game. He has an abnormally large heart, and without a transplant, he will not live much longer.

The hospital administrator, a cold and unsympathetic woman named Rebecca Payne (Anne Heche), tells John and Denise that their insurance doesn't cover a procedure of this magnitude. They need to make a huge down payment in cash or the hospital will discharge Mike.

John desperately tries to come up with the money. He petitions his insurance company and files paperwork and seeks some sort of financial aid. When none of that works, he turns to selling personal items (his truck, TV, etc) and his church for assistance. But it all proves fruitless, and Mike is set for release.

Up to this point, "John Q" works quite well. John and his family are incredibly sympathetic people. Their pain and desperation is moving. You are pulling for them and angry with all those that won't help.

And then Hollywood kicks in. In a remarkably unbelievable character turn, John brings a gun to the hospital and takes hostages. He demands that his son be put on the donor list. If not, he will start killing people.

From here, it becomes more and more unrealistic as time passes. Hostages sit and watch while John's gun sits on the floor, apparently enjoying the opportunity and not wanting to pass up the chance to be shot and killed. And that's just for starters.

Characters, like Rebecca and one of the hostages, Dr. Turner (James Woods), go through sudden and phony personality changes whenever the plot feels it's necessary. Both start as one-dimensional villains and then abruptly become caring and helpful.

There's also a number of supporting characters that are annoying and unnecessary. The worst is a slimy reporter with a name only Hollywood could come up with, Tuck Lampley. When he gets an exclusive audio/video feed inside the hospital, he says "this is going to be my white Bronco." Cut him out, not only does the movie lose nothing, it vastly improves.

In addition to Tuck, there's a nice doctor helping Denise who looks like a "Baywatch" extra, Police Chief Monroe (Ray Liotta), hostage negotiator Frank Grimes (Robert Duvall) and a group of wise-cracking hostages, who are never frightened and instead seem to be having a blast. All of these people are a distraction.

Just when you think it can't get any worse, it does. Characters give speeches more suited to a commercial or congressional hearing about the travesty of health care and HMOs. Calling "John Q" overly preachy would be the understatement of the decade.

It all leads to a conclusion that is among the most manipulative and ludicrous ever put to film. Every five seconds there's a big, emotional speech drawn out for as long as possible to make you weepy or a scene designed to make you think a character is in danger when you know they're not.

Washington does his best to salvage "John Q," but nothing and no one could save a movie this dreadful. Overlong, melodramatic, predictable and unintentionally funny, it deserves treatment far worse than John and his family receive.

"John Q" opened at theaters everywhere on Fri., Feb. 15. Click here for showtimes.