John Henry is an African American folk hero. He is said to have worked as a “steel-driving man”—a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel. According to legend, John Henry’s prowess was measured in a race against a steam-powered rock drilling machine, a race that he won only to die in victory with hammer in hand as his heart gave out from stress.
The new film recently released on Netflix stars Terry Crews as Henry, and drags this legend into the 21st century. This John Henry lives a quiet and peaceable life after an accident with a gun convinces him to retire from gang life and loaded weapons forever. Now it’s just him, his sweet dog, and his disabled dad (Ken Foree). Until two immigrant kids on the run from his former South Los Angeles gang leader stumble into his life, that is. That kind of puts a bit of a crimp in the old laying low lifestyle. Plus his honour code pretty much forces him to jump back into the fray on their behalf but because of his no gun policy, he’ll have to face off against an entire gang armed only with his big hammer. Yeesh.
I very much enjoyed watching Terry Crews flex his acting muscles for a change but the actors are pretty much the only thing that works in this movie. Director Will Forbes relies too heavily on violence to cover up his uncertainty. His shifts in tone are pretty wild and disorienting, and the editing makes it feel like large chunks of the movie were left on the cutting room floor. This movie is about as subtle as the sledgehammer John Henry carries.
In 2018, Netflix announced that Dwayne Johnson would portray the character in a film intended to be the first installment in a shared universe that centers around heroes of legend and folklore, from various ethnic groups and cultures. This is NOT that movie: it’s a different script and a different director. But that one, titled John Henry and the Statesmen, even had a teaser trailer. In 2018 they claimed it was “coming soon” but no word since on where it’s ended up (to be fair, Johnson and director Jake Kasdan have been making a lot of Jumanjis), but whether or not their Avengers-style folk legend shared universe takes off, it’s probably safe to say that Will Forbes’ is dead in the water.