Despite his imposing physical presence, former football player Terry Crews has spent the majority of his acting career in comedic roles, where his affable demeanor provides an amusing contrast to his massive physique. Crews is far more than just a walking sight gag, though; he’s a talented actor with excellent comic timing, and he brings warmth and relatability to everything from Brooklyn Nine-Nine to questionable Adam Sandler movies. So it’s refreshing to see him get the chance to flex his dramatic muscles in addition to his physical muscles with a lead role in the revenge thriller John Henry. Crews steps up to the increased responsibility, and his performance as the stoic, upstanding title character is the best part of Will Forbes’ muddled debut feature.
Named after the folk hero known for his ability to drive a steel hammer into a rock, Crews’ John Henry is the modern equivalent of one of those Western heroes who live on the edge of town after vowing never to commit another act of violence. Those guys always end up picking up arms again to defend the innocent, and that’s what happens to John Henry, too, although it takes the meandering, unfocused movie too long to get there. The main villain isn’t even introduced until more than halfway into the movie, and his connection to John Henry is explained via clumsy flashbacks.
Before that, there’s a shootout at an underworld brothel where women have been forced into prostitution. One of those women, Honduran refugee Berta (Jamila Velazquez), manages to escape, and John Henry finds her hiding under the porch of his Compton house. Over the objections of his cantankerous, wheelchair-bound dad BJ (Ken Foree), John Henry takes Berta in and vows to protect her from the gangsters who are now hunting her. Soon he’s also protecting her half-brother Emilio (Joseph Julian Sora), who led the attack on the brothel to save her.
The back story of Berta and Emilio’s family competes with John Henry’s own back story (shown via camcorder-style home videos as well as one long digression into the past) for attention along with several other subplots, including the gangsters’ internal conflicts and John Henry’s potential romance with a former high school classmate (Kimberly Hebert Gregory). Eventually Chris “Ludacris” Bridges shows up as a crime lord named Hell, with a blinged-out metal jaw that makes him look like some sort of hip-hop James Bond villain, and the movie loses any pretension to socially conscious drama.
Forbes seems unwilling to embrace his movie’s trashy thriller elements, though, and he stages even the most, well, ludicrous moments with a thudding sense of self-seriousness. Crews remains committed and convincing even as John Henry makes some rather questionable choices in his efforts to protect Berta’s family and his own, but the movie fails to support him, making digressions into Tarantino-style banter between henchmen (there’s a lengthy discussion about The Human Centipede between two disposable side characters) and overwrought melodrama about the cycle of poverty and violence in the inner city. John Henry eventually wields a big-ass hammer in his final showdown with Hell, but any parallels to the folk tale quickly fall apart.
Theoretically, John Henry is exactly the kind of project that Crews should be taking on, a small-scale production that lets him show off his range and prove that he can carry a movie. Hopefully some filmmaker with a stronger vision and more technical skill will see this movie, disregard all of the extraneous nonsense around Crews, and be inspired to finally give him the showcase he deserves.