By now, you’ve probably already heard of Proud Mary and its lack of supportive marketing upon its release this past Friday. It’s true that the film wasn’t screened for critics. If the lack of fanfare surrounding the Taraji P. Henson starring vehicle can be attributed to its distributor is a bit of a loaded question. Even though the finished product is not without merit, it becomes immediately clear that the reason why Proud Mary got buried in the dumping ground of January may have something to do with the fact that it’s just plain old bad. Not the kind of bad that warrants a “where did they go wrong” reaction either, but a bad that almost fully encompasses anything good about the idea of Henson playing the title role in a throwback Blaxploitation actioner. But alas, the actress frequently rises above the material to hint at what could’ve been given a better movie.
Mary (Henson) is a hitwoman for an organized crime family in Boston run by Benny (Danny Glover) and his son, Tom (Billy Brown), who also happens to be Mary’s former lover. She’s racked with guilt after she’s dispatched to kill a bookie and discovers his young son playing video games quietly in the adjacent room. Flash forward to a year later and that young kid is running drugs for Benny’s competition. Mary takes it upon herself to off him when he threatens that kid, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston). Now she must deal with the consequences of starting a turf war.
Director Babak Najafi last helmed the woebegotten sequel to Olympus Has Fallen, London Has Fallen. He proved there that his eye for action all depends on how much slapdash CGI he can throw into the proceedings to cover up his lack of craft. There’s no difference here. Between him and cinematographer Dan Laustsen, I’ve never seen Boston look so dark and devoid of personality before. The way all of the black performers are shot in certain sequences brings to focus that this duo have no idea how to present a whole race of people in a good light. There’s multiple scenes where Henson or Danny Glover are shot in shadows. No, not on purpose. You can tell that their obsession with light drifting through curtains fascinates them more than anything else.
And again, Henson is given a role almost completely devoid of agency. Proud Mary had the rare opportunity to deliver a throwback actioner in the vein of Coffy and Foxy Brown right into the mainstream. That opportunity gets squandered by a script seemingly ripped off of whatever network crime show you haven’t queued up on your DVR yet. Henson is the kind of performer that can say so much with so little, and you can see that talent working incredibly hard to make the material rise to the occasion. There’s even hints that Mary is not a hired gun to Benny, but is more like an employee blackmailed into indentured servitude. Why not make it all about Mary working her hardest to break from the cycle of violence she’s been tied to? You can see it in Henson’s performance that Mary doesn’t necessarily enjoy mowing down faceless baddies for a drug kingpin. Wrapping Mary up in generic proceedings strips the film of anything unique or with gumption.
Even when Tina Turner’s legendary song gets used in the climactic action sequence, it all seems like a contractual obligation rather than actual inspiration. Maybe that’s all that Proud Mary is: a contractual obligation. Because it’s clear that Henson is working her damn hardest to make it all worthwhile. Big wheel keeps on turning, I guess.