Let’s face it, the days of seeing b-action films on the big screen are over. Luckily, most of us have pretty big screens at home. Streaming Fury is a weekly column in which I scour streaming platforms for hard-asses and the explosions they casually walk away from.
I had not heard about JOHN HENRY until it dropped on Netflix and became an overnight hit. And even then, I barely heard of it. We’re talking about the number two most watched movie they currently have. And yet, it feels like it hardly came out.
JOHN HENRY isn’t really an adaptation of the famous folktale, but it borrows iconography from it to create a new story vaguely in its image. The film is not good enough to fawn over, but also contains too much audacity and boldness to ignore. I don’t know how old its director, Will Forbes, is. My impression is that he is young and will one day deliver greatness if given the chance. There’s budding brilliance all over JOHN HENRY; it just never quite comes together like you’d want.
As you might expect, the film focuses on Terry Crews as a guy named John Henry. He’s not THE John Henry, but he is a very muscular man of few words who carries a big-ass hammer. John lives with his horny, wheelchair-bound father BJ (Ken Foree) in a modest dwelling and probably has a blue-collar job of some sort. He’s a sad man, sensitive and mild-mannered. We meet the poor guy just as his dog gets run over. Even at the end of a drawn pistol, Henry silently picks up his dead dog and minds his own business. This is not an accurate representation of a human being but a play at modern myth. JOHN HENRY’s as much a super-heroic spaghetti Western as a tale of inner-city gangster violence.
Thanks to a shootout filled with a horrific amount of CG blood, squibs and smoke, an innocent immigrant from Honduras escapes sexual slavery and finds herself hiding under John Henry’s porch. He invites her in, and before you know it has decided it's his job to protect her. Soon, her cousin shows up looking for her and John Henry decides to protect him too. Eventually he fails at this and grabs his big hammer for a big rescue/revenge mission.
That doesn’t sound like much but between the small bits of plot, a lot of information gets conveyed. Maybe too much. We learn about John Henry’s violent past. We learn about his cousin Hell (Ludacris), a local crime lord with some kind of robotic jaw to cover an old gunshot wound. We see ‘90s camcorder footage of a young John Henry and his father. We meet John Henry’s old high school sweetheart. We overhear a super long and unnecessary discussion about THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE. Scenes typically shift with music montages that go beyond interspersal digressions into full-on music videos. It all gives JOHN HENRY a feeling of ambition without discipline, firing shots all over but not quite aiming at anything.
And yet, here’s this film where Terry Crews puts the comedy away and plays a sad badass. He’s great and it’s a super cool thing to see. Crews gets a beard for most of the film and does a classic third-act shave before kicking ass, but that’s a surprise too because he shaves his whole face, not just down to his signature look. Ken Foree gets to be funny without sacrificing pathos. Ludacris goes pretty arch, but you just can’t stop looking at his weird jaw thing. He’s almost a Bond villain. It’s like they wanted to make him part robot but didn’t commit all the way with it.
Ultimately, JOHN HENRY feels like an ambitious short rather than a feature, but there’s something undeniable about watching Crews march through a yard with a sledgehammer to a heavy Ennio Morricone-esque score. That alone makes me happy it's out there and that people are watching it. More than anything, I look forward to what Will Forbes does next, as there's something special here even if it doesn't quite land.