Terry Crews stars in this weirdly outrageous tale of crime and punishment, new on Netflix
Most folks know the tale of American hero John Henry, the black railroad steel-driver whose natural athleticism and ability to hoist a jack and lay a track bested all others, even the technological automation of steam-powered machinery — until he died, at the height of his exertion, with a hammer in his hand.
Saban’s new film John Henry, directed by Will Forbes, isn’t so much an adaptation of that folk tale as a modern LA-set story that borrows its most iconic imagery and tries to evoke something of the same spirit.
Terry Crews plays the eponymous lead, named after the folk hero. He’s the perfect actor to embody what John Henry conceptually represents: not only one of toughest, most insanely ripped, and outright coolest actors in Hollywood, but a man of great character and integrity as well.
Encountering young Berta (Jamila Velazquez), a homeless illegal immigrant hiding in his neighborhood, John invites her inside to spend the night in safety. John and his father (Ken Foree) befriend Berta and eventually also her LA-born cousin, who share their story: Berta and her brother fled Central America and made their way to the US, where she was abducted by gang members, presumably for sex slavery. Her brother and cousin rescued her, killing several gang members in the process, but her brother was caught and is now their captive.
For John, the story strikes a specific chord — the gang is the very same one that he ran with as a youth before renouncing violence and quitting the life. The nature of how this occurred, and the fallout of his choices, is a gradual discovery for the audience, revealed in flashbacks over the course of the film.
With this unexpected event, he’s thrown back into the chaos and must confront his past, and gang boss “Hell” (‘Ludacris’ Bridges), with whom he shares a checkered history.
Narratively, the plot isn’t that unusual compared to other crime films. Where John Henry stakes its claim to cinematic folklore is in its unusual style, a mix of elevated melodrama, measured exploitation, and fantastic realism, which combine to evoke some sense of mythology. Bold choices abound: John grieves the loss of his dog, grounding things in a melancholic daze from the start. He arms himself with a massive hammer, like his namesake. Hell has an ornate metal jaw, the result of a past injury which is central to both his story and John’s. The film’s music by DJ Quik (which is awesome) mixes in sweeping spaghetti western stylings with its hip-hop beats.
John Henry’s crazy stylization and heightened drama have doubtlessly been key to its critical drubbing. It’s easy to see it as silly. Absurd. Unrealistic. In fairness, it is all these things, yet the very concept of the great American tall tale is both the point and heart of the film, and why these things must be true. John Henry’s yardstick isn’t Scorsese or Tarantino; it’s the very idea of creating an larger-than-life mythology, at a plane slightly higher than our reality.
Does it succeed? Honestly, perhaps not, but it sure as hell makes the attempt, and I had a great time enjoying what this wild, weird, and wonderful movie had to offer.