If you were on Netflix during the month of May, you might have seen a striking image of Terry Crews holding a sledge hammer. His name . . . John Henry. An ex-gang member encounters two immigrant kids being chased by a Southern Los Angeles gang. It’s up to the mighty John Henry to protect them.
The Netflix promo image was seductive in its promise. Terry Crews is standing in front of a gorgeous Los Angeles backdrop, city lights shining over his dark muscles, sledgehammer resting over his powerful shoulders. The promise of an exciting action movie was at hand.
Then about an hour after meeting John Henry, it became quickly apparent that this was not an action movie at all. Instead, it was an indie-film from a fledgling director with no concept of theme, depth, or having a point.
The history of John Henry.
Before we dive into what went wrong with this film, I felt it was important to research who the legend was. John Henry was an African American folk hero responsible for building railroad tunnels in West Virginia.
Legend states that an agent of steam powered drills went to the railroad in order to replace the men with machines. Rather than let a machine do man’s work, he challenged the agent to a contest. Who or what could drill holes fastest? John Henry, wielding his mighty hammer, defeated the steam drill. However, because of the strength needed to beat the machine, the mighty man shortly died of a heart attack. His legend lives on as “The Ballad of John Henry.”
The movie version.
The Netflix adaptation of John Henry has superficial similarities to the original legend. John Henry is of course, big and strong, with perfect casting of Terry Crews. He also wields a hammer in the final confrontation. And that’s about it. There’s nothing mythical or legendary about this version of John Henry.
Why the film John Henry fails to captivate.
Now that you know some of the details behind the legend, perhaps you can understand why this film felt a little bit . . . misleading.
You see, John Henry is a mythical hero. A black Hercules. So when I saw the logo for Power Rangers creators, Saban Films, I had a level of expectation built into me that made it seem as if this film would be similar to Luke Cage or Unbreakable. I thought we were going to see a heroic black man save the day using his incredible strength.
And if not superpowers, I thought we were at least going to see Terry Crews smash bad guys with his hammer.
None of this happens. So then I assumed John Henry was going to be a gang movie in the same vein as Boys in the Hood, Boricua’s Bond, or Blood in Blood Out. No, not a gang movie either.
John Henry is a story about a muscular black man protecting (and I use “protecting” loosely) a Latina girl from his gangster cousin. That’s it.
No, really that’s it. There’s no plot twist. No theme. No moral to the story. Nothing, nada, zilch. John Henry is not a story of redemption nor is it a story about murdered migrants. It’s not a story about gang members who’ve gone bad or a story about John Henry refusing to use his strength for good.
This is a film that seems more intended to sell a soundtrack than a story.
The movie starts with a promise. BJ Henry (Ken Foree) tells us the reason behind John Henry’s name. In fact, the words “Do you know why I named you John Henry,” repeat multiple times throughout the film.
After this we open to a comic book style intro sequence. Another tease of the superheroic world we’ll never see.
Next we cut to a scene of gang members playing dominoes with sex trafficked girls sitting on a nearby couch.
After some, admittedly believable, yet pointless dialogue. Two Latino hitmen assassinate the gangsters and rescue one of the girls.
I thought, “Great! An elite squad of Cartel hitmen going after the LA gangs.”
But no, they were not an elite squad. One guy was the clueless brother of the girl. The other was a loser drug dealer. Shortly after this exciting sequence is when the film immediately slows to a stop and reveals what it actually is.
This intro is a teaser for a film that doesn’t exist.
Berta (Jamila Velazquez) and Oscar (Tyler Alvarez) play siblings who have illegally come to the US to escape gang violence. They find Emilio (Joseph Julian Sora) whom they believe may know where their father is located, making Emilio their half-brother.
John Henry makes it seem as if it’s a film that cares about the lives of Berta and Oscar escaping Honduras, but it doesn’t.
They then make it seem that it’s a movie about Emilio earning redemption for wanting to abandon his half-siblings. Nope, not that either.
Then the movie makes it seem as if John Henry is going to be a film about John Henry trying to turn his cousin back into a good guy. But instead, his cousin is a two dimensional villain with a metal jaw and a butane torch.
Near the end of the film, John Henry finally picks up his sledgehammer. If there was ever a perfect moment for this movie to redeem itself, this was it. But it doesn’t. You see close ups of the hammer swinging but he only hurts two people. There’s no fist fighting, no show downs with hit squads, and no awesome climactic battle. The faceoff with his Bond villain cousin is so anti-climactic, I nearly snapped my retinas from eye rolling so hard. I’ve seen better fight scenes in the original Star Trek.
Though the deaths in this film are shocking and surprising they don’t carry as much consequence as they should.
Ultimately, John Henry feels like an excuse to showcase music from director Will Forbes, and rapper DJ Quik. A music video with a lot of dialogue, sitting around doing nothing, and tepid action scenes.
What the film needed to be good.
- I loved the VHS flashback segments. They felt believable and authentic. The film should have used those VHS tapes as the foundation for the story and built upon it. In its current form it is neither a gangster film, nor a superhero film, nor a realistic drama.
- The antagonist “Hell” was a caricature, a two-dimensional villain one would find in an old James Bond movie. The concept behind Hell was so cartoony that it completely undermined any authenticity the film was trying to create. Hell needed to be more realistic or removed from the film. The metal jaw and Ludacris’s acting was cringe-worthy.
- If you’re going to introduce Chekov’s gun, FIRE IT! The entire movie tells us how strong John Henry is yet we never get to see that strength in action. We don’t see him picking up people with one hand, lifting trucks, or busting through walls. The heaviest thing John Henry lifts is his bed, an air conditioner, and a sledgehammer. Even -I- can lift those things! You can’t call a movie John Henry, base it on American Folklore, and then not showcase HIS STRENGTH! Why call it John Henry? Terry Crews in the hood would have been a better title.
He even rips off his sleeves to show off his muscles, but he literally does nothing to demonstrate his power.
I hate to keep repeating myself but this movie kept reminding us of his strength the entire time. “Do you know why I named you John Henry?” YES, WE GET IT, BECAUSE HE’S STRONG! Yet we never see it.
- Where are the character arcs? There was no lesson that these characters learned. No one learned something about the other person. John Henry didn’t learn more about the plight of illegal immigrants, and the immigrants didn’t learn anything about John Henry except that he’s a good dude and doesn’t like guns.
The other characters in John Henry have no growth and no depth. Everyone is a two-dimensional stereotype with go nowhere subplots and no agency of their own.
- Lastly, John Henry has no agency. All of the problems that happen in this movie come to him. He was not out on the street witness to a kidnapping or a failed rescue, the victim came to him.
I didn’t mention this earlier, but at the beginning of the film the gangsters kill John Henry’s dog in a car accident. I assumed this was going to lead into him getting his revenge on the gangsters. But no, John Henry does nothing to avenge his dog.
They could have cut the scene and nothing would have changed.
When John Henry gets money to help the migrants escape town, he gives the money to Emilio and asks him to take responsibility over them.
In the final battle, John Henry does not do anything to ensure he wins the fight with his cousin. The only thing he does is spare a character’s life and that character saves him. But if that character had died, John Henry would have died, thus robbing him of his agency.
Also, I have to ask. What was the point of the child shooting fakeout? Everything that takes place in John Henry feels so fake and contrived, that it is almost adolescent in its execution. A teenager’s unproven script turned into a movie.
Essentially, John Henry is a movie that reeks of amateur film making. No wonder it flopped in theaters.
Send director Will Forbes back to film school. If he went to film school, tell him to ask for his money back. John Henry wasn’t an awful movie, but I cannot recommend you watch it either.