It’s January and there’s a new action movie in theaters which wasn’t screened for critics. If that sentence doesn’t scare you away from Proud Mary then I don’t know what will. Of course, the fact that Proud Mary wasn’t screened for critics has become something of a scandal, called out by the film’s own star, Taraji P. Henson, and turned into this-is-yet-another-way-the-film-industry-is-racist think pieces by critics like Alissa Wilkinson and Scott Mendelson. Maybe there’s something to that. Maybe not. All I know for sure is this: Proud Mary is a real mess of a movie..
Henson stars as a hitwoman (named Mary, obviously) who just wants out of the life. After a blaxploitation-style opening, we see her nonchalantly murder a man in his apartment only to discover he has a 12-year-old son (the rather promising Jahi Di’Allo Winston) playing video games with his headphones on in the other room. Unwilling to kill a kid, she immediately leaves the apartment. The film then jumps to a year later, by which point Mary has been observing the now-orphaned kid, named Danny, from afar and despairing as he’s fallen into a life of a mob drug runner. She eventually steps in, kills Danny’s abusers, which inadvertently sets off a mob war between her boss Benny (Danny Glover) and a rival family. Mary has to somehow clean up the mess while also keeping Danny from finding out who she really is AND fending off the advances of Benny’s lovestruck son.
The problem is not necessarily with the plot, although parts of it certainly don’t make a whole lot of sense. No, the problem is the film’s lack of tonal control. It feels like the studio made a straight John Wick clone starring Taraji P. Henson, and then long after they’d finished filming someone randomly said, “You know she’s black, right? Shouldn’t we, I don’t know, Pam Grier this up a little, add in some funky graphics at the start and then never come back to that. Oh, also, let’s randomly drop in some R&B even though we already have Fil Eisler’s perfectly disposable, action movie score. Like, I know we already have that super tense finale we filmed, but what if we randomly put Tina Turner underneath it on the soundtrack? That’s hip, right?” Then someone else said, “We’re missing the emotion. Can we add in more scenes of Taraji and the kid bonding? I can hear it in the trailer ‘She’s Proud Mary. She’ll shoot your ass off, but you’d better not swear around her kid. She wants to raise him right.’”
Beyond that, there are basic, filmmaking 101 aspects that go wildly wrong here, such as inconsistent lighting, uncertain editing, and a weird sound design which makes it seem like all of Danny Glover’s dialogue has been dubbed. Those failures ensure that a film which runs a mere 88 minutes long never actually has any noticeable momentum. You’d expect something at least a little more competent from the director behind London Has Fallen (Babak Najafi) and shot by one of John Wick: Chapter 2’s cinematographers (Dan Laustsen). Those are actual movies. John Wick’s even a really good one. By comparison, Proud Mary is, at best, a good Taraji P. Henson performance buried in direct-to-video fare, the type of thing we’re meant to find empowering because, look, it’s an action movie built around a black woman. Yeah, but what if they’d tried a little harder and made a good action movie built around a black woman. Henson deserves to star in something like that.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Go to your local Redbox and you’ll find countless films just like Proud Mary, mindless action shoot-em-ups you’ve never heard of before even though they feature some actual recognizable names, be they ascending TV stars or ex-A-listers. Most of the time, these movies are shit, just quick and easy cheapies made primarily for the European market where fading American movie stars still have some sway. Other times, they’re mindless fun. Proud Mary is more the former than the latter. Taraji P. Henson deserves better.
CRITICAL CONSENSUS RIGHT NOW