Movie Review: Terry Crews carries a Big Hammer as “John Henry”

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Love that Terry Crews.

When it comes to big, burly character actors who can credibly play tough guys, and hilarious goofs on their tough guy image, he has just two peers — Danny Trejo and Dave Bautista. Pretty good company to be in.

And if there’s anybody you can picture in your mind when you hear the folk song “John Henry,” it’s Crews, a big man right at home with a sledgehammer in his hand, as a “steel-driving man” or a menace to a bad man.

But as John Henry, he’s parked in the middle of an archetypal “Man of Peace” forced to become a “Man of Violence” revenge thriller that — short as it is — loses track for LONG stretches of just what it’s about. It’s a cluttered, disjointed and not terribly satisfying variation on the “die with a hammer in my hand” legend that might have been a great showcase for a character actor given a leading role, for once.

Grainy home video flashbacks tell us who John Henry is and how he came to be this way. He grew up “straight outta” Compton, and his amusing blowhard of a widowed dad (horror veteran Ken Foree) loves telling him the story, “You know why I named you John Henry?”

It’s because he was strong, even at birth. A man-mountain of an adult, wearing a permanent scowl, he’s not the sort to take having his little dog run over, only to have the gangster (Gerald “Slink” Johnson) who killed the dog rage about the blood it got on his Escalade, and threaten John with a pistol.

But John Henry does take it. He picks up his pet and walks away from the confrontation.

The neighborhood’s notorious for a reason. When a big gang card game ends in a massacre, your first thought is “John Henry got around to his vengeance early,” but no. The gangsters were bragging about all the “ho’s” they’ve rounded up to make money for them. The shooters were there to end that.

One girl (Jamila Velazquez) gets away and hides under John Henry’s house. He’s not going to give this stranger up, even when the cops cruise through, sweeping the neighborhood for survivors or witnesses, “some kids” who escaped the carnage.

John lives in the house he grew up in, caring for his still-bragging-about-his-sexual-prowess Pop, “BJ.” Big John’s on oxygen and in a wheelchair. His massive, sensitive son may have the kind impulse of hiding “Berta” there. But it is BJ who knows enough Spanish to let them communicate.

There’s the set-up. John and BJ hide Berta, the cops are sort of looking for her, and the surviving members of the gang, led by Hell (Ludacris) are looking, too.

So are her brothers who, it turns out, were the ones who shot up that card game trying to free her. Emilio (Joseph Julian Soria) finds Berta, and soon they’re all holed up in that house waiting for Hell to unleash hell upon them.

That simple plot tells us where this is going, but writer-director Will Forbes is loathe to get to the point. The script loses its suspense, power and minimalism as we get all this Berta back story, more John Henry backstory explaining why he’s non-violent and his connection to Hell, John Henry bonding with Berta, John Henry bonding with Emilio and John Henry catching up with old classmate Tasha (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) and an even older neighbor.

The story is disjointed and abandons its minimalist focus on who and what is important. Stupid interludes with gang-bangers — who all dress in white — explaining “The Human Centipede” to each other while on watch, an off-key Tasha/John dance-reminisce moment where they remember “our jam” from back in the day, add nothing.

The picture stops dead for the better part of an hour during all of this, even as the viewer is muttering “Commence to HAMMERING, John.”

Ludacris, playing a character who calls himself “king” and sits on a throne in his gang hideout, has never looked more worthy of his chosen moniker than wearing this blinged-up metal jaw he sports here – ludicrous.

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Once the picture finally gets around to what it’s supposed to be doing, it almost turns exciting and visceral, and it kind of makes sense. Nothing shows viscera and blood to better advantage than white on white clothing and decor — spattered and arterial sprayed. All a bit too little entirely too late, here.

Crews isn’t bad in the title role. But he overdoes the “triggered” by violence thing. The editing wipes out any subtlety to the performance.

And anyway, by the end we know it’s going to take more than a hammer to fix “John Henry. ”

1half-star

MPAA Rating: R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, sexual references and some drug use

Cast: Terry Crews, Ken Foree, Ludacris, Jamila Velazquez, Joseph Julian Soria, Gerald “Slink” Johnson and Kimberly Hebert Gregory

Credits: Directed by Will Forbes, script by Will Forbes and John Skinner. A Saban Films release.

Running time: 1:32

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