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.
I loved Furious 7 from start to finish. I wasn’t sure at all how it would turn out, or how I would feel about it given Paul Walker’s death, especially since he died in a car crash. But it turned out to be a very sweet tribute to him that felt genuine rather than exploitative.
So we should get this out of the way early: this movie has no real plot. If you described the plot to me next week I would probably struggle to tell you which number was attached to the title (I’m honestly not sure whether I have seen #5, #6, or both). But if you like action or cars or explosions or all of the above, the lack of plot won’t matter one bit. Really, a plot or character development would just slow the movie down, so it works out for the best!
I am being slightly faceteous. There is a thread that ties the movie together from start to finish, and it is the theme of family that the trailers have been good enough to hammer into my head. It really works though as it sets up the ending perfectly. For that reason I would be interested to see what the movie was originally intended to be, because I was truly surprised how seamless the movie is. I was expecting something disjointed as a result of them trying to write out the Brian O’Conner character at the last minute and instead I got a cohesive, thoroughly enjoyable movie with a great ending. I cannot say enough how satisfying it is to get an ending that is true to the characters in the face of the real-world death of one of the stars. It was perfect.
There will inevitably be more of these (#8 at least must be a sure thing) and I kind of wish they would stop. I am sure I will enjoy the next one but these movies were best when they had both Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. Those two were the heart of the franchise and since we will never see that again, I suspect the instalments to come will feel a little bit empty. But I can’t blame anyone for keeping the franchise going, and looking back it is a complete mystery how it has survived for seven movies (#2 and #3 were the weak links, and the series probably should have died there). Not coincidentally, those weak ones are the only two that Paul and Vin do not both appear in. So that does not bode well, but if this indeed the end of the franchise as we know it, it is a glorious finish.