Jan 23, 2020
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‘John Henry’ Review: Hammer Time

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No kindness goes unpunished in “John Henry,” a thug-life thriller so frequently preposterous that it almost resembles a parody. Like “John Wick,” its action is juiced by the killing of a dog; unlike that movie, its titular character (played by the likable Terry Crews) is stoically disinclined to vengeance. A gentle giant with shoulders like an ox, he’s so determined to escape his gangbanging past that when he finally lumbers into action, his weapon of choice is a sledgehammer, not a gun. And his first victim is a car windshield.

The plot — which distractedly follows John Henry’s attempts to protect a Honduran woman from his former gang — is burlesque and the dialogue is a trip. Ken Foree, as John Henry’s salty, disabled father, has a blast delivering a sentimental paean to his character’s once-legendary penis, and a pair of bangers debate the relative merits of being the front, back or center victim in “The Human Centipede.” Gritty home video from the 1990s outlining John Henry’s back story interweaves with scenes of bad guys talking trash and playing cards, while dazed-looking women hang out in the background like dessert. For some reason, all the gang members wear impractical snow-white sweatsuits, probably to enhance our appreciation of the gore when they inevitably get plugged.

Set in South Los Angeles, this first feature from Will Forbes is a big slice of ham. The occasional witty line must fight to the death with a soundtrack that flips from flamenco guitars to hustling rap, depending on which ethnicity is onscreen, and ends with a spaghetti-western flourish. Yet the finale — featuring a villain (Chris Bridges, better known as the rapper Ludacris) with a golden bar fused to his jawbone — isn’t nearly as surreal as John Henry’s mid-movie drugstore slow dance with an old flame. He’s there to purchase tampons, but, honestly, you don’t need to know.

John Henry

Rated R for blood spraying and head smashing. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes.

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