John Henry (Terry Crews) left his violent past as a brutal gangbanger years ago. When he is confronted by two scared teens in dire need of help, he decides it is time to confront his past and his old boss, Hell (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), to give the kids a chance for a new start in “John Henry.”
If you expect an adaptation of the legend of John Henry – the story of a man who did battle against a powerful steam engine and won, then he died – you only get a symbolic tie to that old story. Here, John Henry wants nothing except for him, and his father BJ (Ken Foree), to be out and away from his violent past. Fate, though changes that when young Berta (Jamila Velasquez) escapes from her captors and hides on John Henry’s property, being hunted by both the police and the gangsters who kidnapped her.
While I like seeing Terry Crews in a different and dramatic role and really like Ken Foree as his house-bound dad, BJ, the problem I have with “John Henry” is the bad guy, Hell. Here, he and his henchmen are mere cardboard sinister with no real rhyme or reason in the story – except as a device to push things along. Also, Hell has a weird piece of metal, which I presume is gold, attached to the outside of his jaw, supposedly to make him look menacing. It does not work with Ludacris being given a ludicrous character.
“John Henry” is probably best suited to cable fodder. It does not have the shoulders, despite Terry Crews’ own sizable ones, to warrant buying a ticket at the theater. I give it a C.
Cowriter (with John Skinner)/director Will Forbes makes his feature debut with a throw back tale of vigilante justice which could have screened at a 1970’s drive-in. The film is loosely based on the African American steel-driving folk hero John Henry, here modernized as a man (Terry Crews) in the hood who refuses to join the gang life that sucks in his cousin Hell (Ludacris, sporting a ridiculous gold metal gun face plate).
When Berta (Jamila Velazquez), a victim of sex trafficking under Hell’s gang, is rescued by the cousin, Emilio (Joseph Julian Soria), who was responsible for her misfortunate, she must run rather than be taken by police. Sheltering under John Henry’s front stairs, she is taken in by the giant of a man despite the protestations of his wheelchair-ridden father, BJ (Ken Foree, "Dawn of the Dead," "The Devil's Rejects"). Gun battles and heroic sacrifices ensue.
While the film’s narrative is shaky at best, Forbes exhibits quite a bit of style with an obviously low budget, making him a filmmaker to watch. Crews makes for a solid and sympathetic action hero, but the film is stolen right out from under his feet by the wisecracking Foree.
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