'John Henry': Film Review

JOHN HENRY Still 1 - Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy of Saban Films
Pic's uncertain approach to familiar material leaves its charismatic star stranded.

Terry Crews plays a man forced to stand up to the gang he used to run with in Will Forbes' debut.

A mean-streets crime flick that flirts with Blaxploitation but seemingly aspires to a more serious kind of moral myth-making, Will Forbes' John Henry offers a man (Terry Crews), just as mighty as the steel-drivin' hero of folklore, who has spent his adult life attempting to avoid having his strength tested. Clearly qualified in the physique department, Crews is an actor with enough charisma and range to carry either gritty genre adventures or more cartoony showdowns; but Forbes' tonal uncertainty and a stiff script leave him stranded here, in a world that lacks the gravity to put his conscience-driven reticence in context. Likely to disappoint most of the actor's fans who see it, it leaves the door open to future action vehicles that might move Crews away from comedy. (Here's hoping he never gets so busy with B-movie heroics that he gives up oddball comic roles entirely.)

The story goes that John's father BJ (Ken Foree) was so impressed with his infant son's grip on his finger that he named him for the folk hero. Now confined to a wheelchair and living alone with John, the older man lives in memories of his Casanova prime — "my dick is legendary!" he tells us twice — and awaits the occasion when he can live vicariously through his son's feats.

John, though, is intent on avoiding conflict. Home movies show us that he ran with a tough crowd as a teen; but he became reclusive after a traumatic incident, and now he won't even touch a gun if it's handed to him.

But across the neighborhood, a crew of broadly-drawn bad guys are about to force him to once again engage with a violent world. We meet four of them in an ugly, unconvincing depiction of their downtime: Four thugs sit in identical white track suits, playing dominoes, their dialogue thick with epithets that can't be reprinted; on a nearby couch sit a few young women so doped they can hardly sit up. The cheesy pimps-and-hos scene-setting gets no more credible once we see how the gang abducts women at random off the street, nor when we see the man they work for: A cold dude named Hell (Ludacris, with none of the swagger he's shown elsewhere), who has some kind of disfigurement on his jaw that he covers with a long metal plate. (It's the sort of bling, perhaps, worn by a man who identifies with Doctor Doom.)

After a botched rescue attempt in which several of Hell's men are killed, one captive, Berta (Jamila Velazquez), hides from pursuers under the Henrys' front porch. John takes her in against the advice of BJ, who knows Hell will keep hunting her — and that the baggage John has with Hell won't make the inevitable conflict easier.

The film focuses now on both John's protective bonding with Berta, a Honduran who has fled violent gangs in her home country, and on his search for a peaceful resolution with the ganglord we come to understand is his cousin. Crews makes it clear that John has a weight on his conscience, that he's PTSD-struck and sad, but the script gives him little to work with. In a chance encounter with an old schoolmate (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) who's clearly attracted to him and wants to know more, he can only explain himself with, "I never had much to say."

More than other similar films, one named John Henry will of course be building toward a classical test of its protagonist's mettle. Composing his own score, Forbes starts copping heavily from Kill Bill as he sends John into the fray, but the action is unsatisfying even if it's not compared to the original Henry's feats. It turns out it's possible to vanquish evil and save the innocent without inspiring generations to sing of your legend.


Production companies: Defiant Studios, Automatik
Distributor: Saban Films
Cast: Terry Crews, Ludacris, Ken Foree, Jamila Velazquez, Joseph Julian Soria, Tyler Alvarez, Kimberly Hebert Gregory
Director: Will Forbes
Screenwriters: Will Forbes, Doug Skinner
Producers: Maurice Fadida, Eric B. Fleischman, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones
Director of photography: Isiah Donte Lee
Production designer: Susannah Honey
Costume designer: Joanna David
Editor: Joe Rosenbloom
Composers: Will Forbes, DJ Quik

R, 91 minutes