Review by Sean Boelman
Inspired by (but not entirely based on) the folk tale of the same name, John Henry is a new crime drama film starring Terry Crews. Because of an enjoyable performance from Crews and a script that is surprisingly thoughtful, this manages to be one of the more ambitious directorial debuts in recent memory.
The movie tells the story of a former gang member who is forced to confront his past when a young girl on the run shows up needing his help. Ultimately, the film is rather predictable, particularly if one is familiar with the namesake of the movie, although the way in which co-writers Will Forbes and Doug Skinner transposed this well-known story to the modern day is quite intriguing.
What makes Forbes and Skinner’s approach to this story so interesting is that they treat it almost like a superhero story. This makes quite a bit of sense as John Henry is a folk hero — a superhero of the people, whose story is passed down through oral histories and songs — and the result is arguably the most ambitious and satisfying low-fi superhero movie since Kick-Ass.
Not everything about Forbes and Skinner’s script is a total home run — there are some significant pacing issues throughout. The first act moves very slowly, and the second and third acts feel entirely rushed. This is particularly the case in the climactic final battle, which occupies far less of the runtime than it likely should.
The film also needed some stronger character development. Apart from the eponymous protagonist, the characters in the movie are all relatively flat. Although there are some interesting side characters, such as the protagonist’s comedic relief father, many of the supporting characters feel underdeveloped. Especially troublesome is the lack of development for the damsel-in-distress around whom the film’s plot revolves.
That said, the actors take what they are given with the script and run with it. This role seems like it was written specifically for Crews, as he is an absolutely perfect match for the character. Any action movie that allows Crews to smash some heads in is welcome, but he seems like he is having a particularly fun time with this movie. Ludacris also gives a memorable turn as the antagonist of the film, though Crews frequently steals the scene.
On a technical level, the movie is a bit rough around the edges, but that can be expected of a B-movie action flick like this. What is so admirable about this film is its ambition. Forbes, who also serves as director, obviously had a clear vision of what he wanted this movie to be, and it comes across. Stylish and accented by a hip hop soundtrack, this is the sleek starring vehicle that Crews needed at this point in his career.
John Henry is certainly quite flawed, but thanks to the talent both in front of and behind the camera, it is surprisingly fun to watch. Though the title may mislead some, this film captures the essence of the folk tale shockingly well.
John Henry hits theaters and VOD on January 24.