Taraji P. Henson definitely has the skills and talent to be an action star. A 20 year veteran of the big screen, she brings a devoted fanbase to the table thanks to her massively popular role on the television series Empire, and from that same source has a strong reputation for being a badass. On paper, director Babak Najafi’s Proud Mary appears to be the perfect vehicle to utilize all of that… but unfortunately, it’s really not. Instead, any cache presented by the idea of an appropriate big screen protagonist for Henson is entirely undercut by an endless string of tropes and bland, generic storytelling that we’ve seen in what feels like hundreds of hitman/assassin films before.
Proud Mary runs a total of 88 minutes long, and if that seems short for a modern feature, it’s because there is zero meat on these bones (some movies are lean; this one is entirely calcium). The film doesn’t even bother telling us the lead character’s name before the inciting incident — which finds Taraji P. Henson’s character barging into an apartment and killing a man before realizing that he has an 11-year-old son named Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) in the back room. Jumping ahead to a year later, she finds herself regularly following the kid — discovering that he is working as an errand boy for a rival Russian gangster (Xander Berkeley) and being horribly abused.
Plagued by guilt, she not only moves Danny into her apartment, but then goes about opening fire on the mobster and a bunch of his cronies. This turns out to be an impressively bad move, as tensions ignite between the murdered men’s organization and Mary’s own, headed up by her surrogate father (Danny Glover), and his son (Billy Brown). Quickly starting to get buried in her own lies and secrets, she begins to look for an exit strategy for herself and Danny to escape the violent world forever.
Stylistically, the film opens strong — presenting opening credits bedazzled with 1970s-reminiscent font and The Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rollin Stone” playing on the soundtrack. Sadly, Babak Najafi doesn’t seem to understand that simply having a throwback title sequence and a kick-ass black woman as your lead doesn’t immediately establish your movie as Coffy or Foxy Brown, because the aesthetic completely stops there. Everything from that point forward has a familiar modern sheen, and any interesting angle, camera movement or lighting effect stands out because they are so few and far between.
In its defense, part of it feels like the film is struggling from budgetary restraints, but that can only excuse so many exalting shots of Mary’s gun closet and Maserati — two of the only things adding any production value. The shootouts are rote, the one car-centric action sequence is excessively stupid and impossible, and it even completely dulls the wonderfully cinematic city setting that is Boston, Massachusetts — though it may be the first Boston-set movie in history that centers on gangsters but doesn’t feature a single Irishman.
That’s pretty revolutionary, but it’s also really the only boring available cliché that Proud Mary doesn’t exploit — and what makes it worse is than none of it is supported by even an iota of substance. The biggest one is the “professional killer who wants out” arc that dominates the narrative, but the film never bothers to give you a real sense of what Mary has been through and what she’s done. It clearly builds up Mary’s secrets to be exposed in the third act, but when those revelations happen even the other characters seem to act like they were just patiently waiting for the information to be delivered. It weirdly feels like the movie is often saying, “You’ve seen all of this before, so we’re not going to even bother filling in the blanks.”
To her credit, Taraji P. Henson does do what she can with the less-than-mediocre material, and certainly shows that she deserves a second shot at this. Going back to the movie’s style problem, the action sequences don’t exactly demand a hell of a lot from her, but she convincingly knows her way around a gun and how to dodge a bullet (even as reality seems to bend in her favor). She has impactful chemistry with Jahi Di’Allo Winston — a talented young actor — and certainly hits the emotional notes — but, again, they all just ultimately get lost in the blandness.
Proud Mary is a film that wasn’t screened in advance for critics, and it doesn’t take long for you to fully understand why. It’s the kind of total mess that we see dumped in January every year, and an unfortunate waste of the many talents involved. Like those many similar titles, it will soon be forgotten — but hopefully there is at least one filmmaker or executive who sees the potential that initially rested with this project and Taraji P. Henson and actually uses it for future good.