John Henry tells the story of a man named …. well, John Henry. He’s played by Terry Crews and he lives in South Los Angeles with his father, BJ Henry (Ken Foree). BJ may have to carry an oxygen tank around with him but he still has enough strength to shout, “My dick is legendary,” so good for him.
(Actually, it may sound like I’m being snarky and, to a certain extent, I am. But having Ken Foree play Terry Crews’s father is actually a brilliant piece of casting.)
John Henry used to be into the gang lifestyle but now he’s gone straight. We see flashbacks to his former life and how he used to hang out with his cousin, Hell (Ludacris). When John accidentally shot Hell in the face, he decided to retire from crime and he also swore off carrying a gun. Hell, on the other hand, just got a fancy gold-plated jaw. Years later, Hell is a crime lord and John Henry is wandering around with sledgehammer.
When a Honduran refugee named Berta (Jamila Velazquez) show up at John Henry’s house, on the run from Hell’s crew, BJ’s reaction is to kick her out. But John Henry, being the gentle giant with a sledgehammer, allows her to stay. When Hell and his crew show up, it leads to violence, death, and …. well, that’s pretty much it.
John Henry is an odd film. The tone is literally all over the place as the film swerves from being a comic book film to a serious drama to a comedy to a Spaghetti western. It takes a lot of skill to take that many different tonal shifts and turn them into a coherent movie and unfortunately, that really doesn’t happen with John Henry. The minute you start to get used to the idea of the film being an over-the-top comic book film, it suddenly tries to be a meditation on violence and guilt. As soon as you’re getting used to the idea of it being a drama, Ludacris shows up with a huge hunk of medal on his face. It’s hard to keep track of what exactly the film is saying because the film itself doesn’t seem to know. I guess that could be forgiven if the film’s action managed to maintain a steady pace but instead, this felt like one of the longest 91-minute films that I’ve ever watched.
However, as our longtime readers should know by now, I’m not a fan of excessive negativity so let’s take a few moments to discuss what did work. I already mentioned the casting of Terry Crews and Ken Foree. They’re fun to watch together. Ludacris’s gold-plated jaw is an amusing detail and it’s unfortunate that the film didn’t have more similarly odd details like that. I also liked the opening credits, which basically told the film’s story in a comic book form. The credits were fun and they hinted at what this film could have been if it had been better-paced and had fully embraced its camp potential.
John Henry played in some theaters before the pandemic outbreak. It later found a home on Netflix and it’s in the process of developing a bit of a cult reputation. Reportedly, there will be a sequel so I guess it’s not time to take John Henry to the graveyard just yet.