Terry Crews’ John Henry is a man of few words. “John Henry,” the folklore-cribbing, violent thriller (opening theatrically and available on demand) about a former gang member who must face his demons when two young immigrants require his help, feels like it wants to say a lot. But what exactly?
Utilizing horror-movie gestures and ladling spaghetti Western sauce on top, first-time director Will Forbes has made a movie stuffed with images of monstrous black men. That was likely not his intention. But it does show what can go awry with when promiscuous genre-borrowing trumps culturally aware storytelling (Doug Skinner co-wrote). Think of it as a Jordan Peele counter-effect.
Still, it’s hard not to love a massive man who’s comfortable with a small, fluffy dog. John Henry’s pup meets its untimely end on a Compton street early in the B movie. One might pity the fool who was driving the now bloodied Escalade and waving a gun at the quiet giant, but John Henry simply returns to the bungalow he shares with his father.
John Henry may look built for physical intervention, but something in his past stops him. “What you gonna do with all that strength?” his father, now confined to a wheelchair, once asked.
The question takes on urgency when Berta (Jamila Velazquez), a young woman snatched by a local gang, needs John Henry’s help. Berta and her brother fled Honduras for much the same reason she is running for her life in South Central: gang violence. She doesn’t speak English. John doesn’t speak Spanish. John’s father, BJ (Ken Foree), acts as translator as a makeshift family starts to take shape.
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Chris “Ludacris” Bridges brings a nasty chill to the screen as Hell, the reigning gang leader. He and John share a history. Although Hell’s crew is locked and loaded, like John, Hell eschews guns. Instead (in a nod to Anton Chigurh, perhaps), he totes a blow torch. He also has a bejeweled metal jaw.
Forbes’ creative collaborators Isiah Donté Lee (cinematographer) and hip-hop artist DJ Quik (original songs), as well as stars Crews and Bridges, add texture where they can. While the images can be vividly brutal, Lee steeps a memorable few in urban tenderness. In a scene that initially plays like a music-video interlude, a daytime cruise through the streets of Compton ends with the camera tracking a young man, his back to us, walking up to a school. The fencing around Compton High evokes a prison, but the man’s posture hints at loving melancholy.
A later scene of a mouthy kid dancing down the sidewalk, earphones on, to a song by Hunter LaMar is equally lyrical. (That each scene floats on music makes sense: Forbes began his film career as a composer; he wrote the score.)
Keep an eye open for cinematographer Lee. His closeups of the neighbors gathered at the “High Noon” face off of Hell and John Henry, of a psycho villain and a folkloric stranger wielding a sledgehammer, bestow compassion upon (but also critique) the gathered, these scared and wary representatives of so many silent majorities terrorized by gang gunslingers.
Flashes of craft can’t make up for the director’s easy default to gore over story. Forbes and his co-writer knew how they wanted to depict Hell’s sadism but never nailed how to embrace the hero with the hammer.