Life isn’t fair for anybody in first-time writer & director Will Forbes’ “John Henry,” (*** OUT OF ****) a simple but savage thug-life thriller with brawny Terry Crews tangling with Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges.  Clocking in at 91-minutes, this predictable but entertaining, R-rated melodrama concerns an interesting relationship between the heroic Crews and the utterly depraved Bridges set against the real-life setting of contemporary Los Angeles.

As much a character study about the titular titan as it is a bullet-blasting B-movie, “John Henry” delivers exactly what its audience yearns for without being cheated with ridiculous lectures about morality.  An undocumented Hispanic brother and sister, who have escaped the devastating terror of Honduras for the freedom of America discover that nothing is perfect in the land of Uncle Sam.

No sooner have these Central American refugees crossed the border than surprising complications separate them.  An African-American gang with its tentacles deep in the sexual slavery racket abducts the naïve heroine Berta (Jamila Velazquez) when she and her brother Oscar (Tyler Alvarez) are walking the mean streets of Los Angeles.

During its opening fifteen minutes, “John Henry” introduces us to its hero and villain and depicts how these two cousins have drifted apart as adults during the intervening years.  One emerges as a ruthless gangster chieftain desperate for ‘respect,’ while the other resides in apparent anonymity after he had committed an act of violence that traumatized him.

Little about “John Henry” has anything to do with the legendary, “steel-driving” African-American folk hero, except for Terry Crews’ mesomorphic physique and a sledgehammer.  Just when you think you have this modest, low-budget thriller figured out, Forbes and freshman writer Doug Skinner sling in some surprises which will catch you off-guard.

“John Henry” opens at a gangster hideout where four African-Americans garbed in white outfits, like the villains in the recent “SuperFly” remake, are bragging about their exploits over a friendly game of cards.  Gangster slang and profuse profanity riddle the dialogue as these three hard-boiled goons and one tough gal gamble away the evening.  Suddenly, one of the four gets the shock of his short life when a slug smashes into his stomach.

Four Central American females that the primary villain, Hell (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges of “Gamer”), has ordered kidnapped dive for the floor.  Two masked Hispanics burst into the house, their bullets punching holes in the walls as they shoot at anybody who moves.  Emilo (Joseph Julian Soria of “The Purge: Election Year”) and Oscar storm into the house with automatic pistols and rescue Berta and her friends.  Police sirens are howling as the Hispanics flee from the house.

Berta scrambles over a fence, into a yard, and crawls under the wheelchair ramp at the front door which effectively conceals her from the uniformed L.A.P.D. patrolman who rattles the front door with his fist.  The homeowner, John Henry (Terry Crews), refuses to let the black cop search hid premises for the runaway illegal immigrants.  Reluctantly, the cop relents then leaves John Henry alone.  No sooner has the patrolman left than John Henry stares down through a gash in the ramp and asks if the terrified girl is hungry.

Writer & director Will Forbes intersperses VHS flashbacks of our title character as a teen as well as straightforward dramatic flashbacks later that suggest why our hero shuns guns.  During a scuffle outside a convenience store, our youthful protagonist clobbers a pistol-packing hood with a pile-driving swing that puts his opponent face down on the pavement for the count.

John Henry’s cousin Hellen stole the surveillance tape that recorded the memorable event.  Unlike everybody else in his neighborhood, John Henry doesn’t rely on a locked and loaded 9mm automatic. Meantime, John’s old-time gangster father, B.J. Henry (Ken Foree of “Brotherhood of Blood”), insists that he himself is God’s gift to women.

Unfortunately, life hasn’t been fair to B.J. since a stroke landed him in a wheelchair.  Nevertheless, confined as he is to a wheelchair, B.J. still packs his pistol and lives with his adult son.  Indeed, the wheelchair ramp saved Berta from being taken into custody by the cops.

Although John Henry invites Berta to dine with them, he realizes that communication between the two of them is strained by his lack of Spanish as a second language.  B.J. salvages this predicament because he can understand and converse with her.  Berta is upset because she escaped from captivity without a scratch, but Emilo left her brother behind.  Later, Emilo tracks Berta down to John Henry’s abode.

Terry Crews delivers a laid-back, low-key performance as the sympathetic protagonist.  He is nothing like his happy-go-luck mercenary in “The Expendables” franchise. John Henry lives a simple, easy-going life until a gangsta hits his pet dog with his vehicle and gripes about the dent the dog put into his ride.

The bragging thugster brandishes a pistol to intimidate John Henry, but our grief-stricken hero ignores the gunman’s threats and cradles his dead pet in his arms.  Sadly, we’re neither told enough about John Henry’s reclusive life nor how he pays his bills.  The saving grace of “John Henry” is Forbes never lets anything interfere with the plot and the inevitable showdown between the two cousins.

Ludacris’s demented villain presents an interesting contrast to John Henry, particularly about his weapon of choice.  Rather than wield an automatic like his trigger-happy hoodlums, Ludacris prefers a blow-torch to maintain discipline within the ranks of his henchmen.  Furthermore, he wears a gold-plated jaw that genuinely sets him apart from any other character.

The violence in “John Henry” isn’t extreme enough to qualify as gratuitous, but its verbose profanity landed it an R-rating.  Our hero bashes the brains out of his opponents with a sledgehammer, but Forbes never depicts the impact of that hammer on flesh and bone.

Largely, we see only splashes of gore when John Henry’s sinks his hammer off-camera into somebody’s noggin. Any way you look at it, Will Forbes makes a slam-bang directorial debut with “John Henry.”

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