‘Proud Mary’ tries to position itself as an homage to the empowered and insane 1970s Blaxploitation genre, mixed in with some contemporary female-driven actioners like ‘Atomic Blonde’. That’s something I can get behind. Unfortunately, the movie’s just not very good.
Admittedly, it starts with a fairly slick sequence of the titular Mary (Taraji P. Henson) dressing up and arming herself for her latest assassination assignment to the tune of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” (kinda obvious, but still amusing). She gets the job done because she’s good at what she does. However, the anonymous stooge she murders has a son named Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) who’s now an orphan, which makes Mary feel guilty. We jump a head a year and that guilt leads Mary to kill a super-evil drug dealer to save Danny from a life of crime. Good for her, but sadly it’s the first step of ‘Proud Mary’ descending into ridiculous melodrama from which it will never return. That drug dealer was protected, and suddenly Mary and Danny find themselves targeted by a gang of indistinguishable mobster types. Now it’s time for a whole bunch of murdering and bickering between Mary and Danny, plus an opportunity for Danny Glover to play a gangster, because why not?
There’s a good movie trapped within ‘Proud Mary’ desperate to get out. The idea of a hitwoman taking on a kid when her maternal instincts kick in following a job isn’t bad by the standards of action pulp. Taraji P. Henson is even well cast in the lead role. She’s more than capable of delivering action star badassitude and can easily slip into more comedic and dramatic tones when the surrogate mother/son scenes require it. Too bad the movie around Henson doesn’t deserve her talents. A kernel for a better movie is here, but it’s let down by almost everything else. The script can never decide if it wants to be goofy fun or heavy drama, and as a result ends up being neither. That’s just the beginning of the problems.
The big issue is director Babak Najafi and his team. Najafi clearly wants to be an action director, but as proven by the awkward shambles that was his previous feature ‘London Has Fallen’, he’s not particularly gifted at shooting it. Action scenes are generally a scramble of handheld shots and hasty edits that make a mess of the stunts and choreography. It’s hard to get a grasp on what’s happening and the pace of the imagery is wonky, likely the result of too much or too little editorial tinkering. Even worse, the cinematography is constantly under-cranked or blown out for the sake of style, to the point where it’s often difficult to even see the actors’ faces as they speak. It’s a struggle to even tell what’s happening in ‘Proud Mary’ half the time, which isn’t exactly the greatest trait for an action movie.
The fact that the story is muddled and the dialogue is often corny could have been overcome if the movie was at least stylish and amusing enough to entertain. What we get instead is mostly a big jumble. That’s a shame because Taraji P. Henson is good in spite of the sloppy movie around her and could do this genre justice if she was cast in a decent film. The contemporary twist on Blaxploitation elements suggests a type of genre flick that could have resonated with a variety of audiences for a variety of reasons, but nothing about ‘Proud Mary’ ever quite clicks. There was potential here and a small handful of sequences (especially the intro and climax) reach it. Sadly, it’s all too easy to see why the studio decided to bury this movie, even while proudly standing by crappier titles.