by Charles Kirkland Jr.
The incomparable Taraji P. Henson plays a hit woman with a heart in the action-packed Proud Mary.
As the movie begins, we see Mary (Henson) doing what she does best. She breaks into a Boston apartment and kills a man. For whatever reason, she searches the rest of the apartment and finds a young boy, who is obliviously playing video games with headphones on his head. Mary spares the boy and slinks out of the apartment. One year later, the boy, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) has become an experienced drug dealer working for Uncle (Xander Berkeley). When Danny gets into trouble with Uncle, the ever watching Mary violently rescues him. Come to find out, Uncle works for Luka (Rade Serbedzija) the head of a crime family that rivals her family led by Benny (Danny Glover) and Luka is not happy about what happened to Uncle. As war ensues, Mary must fight to find a way out for Danny and herself.
While Proud Mary is filled with enjoyable and exciting (and over-the-top) action scenes, the film itself is largely a disaster. It is clear to see why the studio offered no press screenings of the film prior to its release. Mary lacks focus. Not often do I say this but at 89 minutes in run time, the film could have benefitted from at least twenty more minutes of story development. All of the characters lack depth and we fail to see any rational motivation for the actions that Mary makes in the movie. Films like John Wick, which had a run time of 101 minutes, used those extra minutes to complete the necessary development that allowed us to understand and relate to the characters.
Another problem is that the film lacks an identity. The opening credits, powered by the thumping Isley Brothers soul track “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” played more like a ’70s blaxploitation film with Henson getting ready to go kick butt. However, when the track ended, the action and language of the film were so much more current that it was incongruous with the theme set previously and simply felt confusing. At times the movie attempts to play like Wick with its violence, other times it tries to be The Professional with its surrogate parenting storyline. Yet since it never truly commits one way or the other and continues to straddle between the two, instead of being a functional hybrid, the movie just fails to establish itself.
Then there are the pieces of pure lunacy. Mary drives a Maserati. But this must be a supercar.
There are bright spots though. Taraji P. Henson is captivating in her portrayal of hit woman Mary. Even though she is handicapped by not being able to create an identity for her character, she does a very good job in allowing us to access the emotions of the character. But this is par for the course with Henson. Everything in her body of work from Baby Boy to Hustle and Flow to Hidden Figures has been proof that the Oscar-nominated actress is extremely capable in giving gravitas to her characters. Sometimes an actor rises above the work that they are provided, this is one of those times. Henson shines.
Another bright spot was seeing a reunion of sorts between Danny Glover and the beautiful Margaret Avery. This movie is the first time that the two of them have been in a movie together since The Color Purple. Unfortunately, Avery only appears in one short scene but nonetheless a sweet moment.
Director Babak Najafi (London Has Fallen) has done himself no credit with this movie. He criminally underutilizes talent actors, Berkeley (The Walking Dead, Longmire) and Neal McDonough (Legends of Tomorrow, Arrow, Suits) who both have a reputation for playing interesting and complex villains in favor of Billy Brown (How To Get Away With Murder).
Rated R for violence, Proud Mary is a soulless piece of work that betrays the classic soul soundtrack it tries to incorporate. As the titular track plays through the final action scenes and Mary drives her CGI bullet hole filled Maserati super-car, I came to understand why John Fogerty was upset about the use of his song in this movie. The music in this film, unlike in a film like Baby Driver, serves little to no purpose other than to be background noise along this nonsensical journey.
Rumors are that the screenplay writers, John Stuart Newman and company loosely based this movie on the 1980 film Gloria in which Gloria (Gena Rowlands), a neighbor rescues a boy from the mob and goes on the run. Rowlands was nominated for an Oscar for her work in the two-hour thriller. If the rumors are true, maybe Proud Mary should have stuck closer to the original or maybe just put more time into it. It will be interesting to see if a longer, director’s cut becomes available or whether this version was Najafi’s true vision. In a time when female action movies are coming to the forefront (Atomic Blonde, Wonder Woman, Red Sparrow), Proud Mary is an unnecessary step backward.