By: Steve Pulaski
Proud Mary is as bland as gas station coffee and as generic as bag cereal. It's a cut-and-paste actioneer that makes you recall the long-delayed Halle Berry film Kidnap, which saw a release last year, as something welcomed and original. I could believe Taraji P. Henson genuinely saw promise in this project, not only enough to commit to being the lead, but also enough to put up her own money and serve as the film's executive producer. The sad fact about this is that, at 47-years-old, despite a strong outing in Hidden Figures, the Baby Boy/Empire actress still has to do this kind of bargain-bin shoot-em-up in hopes to get another big break. In the meantime, how many performances has Liam Neeson phoned in while still managing a consistent pedigree?
I'll stop there before I let something like the likes of Proud Mary get me too steamed. What was marketed as a blaxploitation revival with speed and craft at the helm ultimately winds up not even being comparable to the B-roll of Atomic Blonde in the sense of competent filmmaking. The film runs at a lean 85 minutes, though its brevity and pacing makes you question how much of the titular character's backstory was cut in order for it to get to its current state. I certainly won't complain too much that the film only soiled a little over an hour of my Sunday morning rather than two, but if that extra half-hour would've provided more identity and development as opposed to the sloppily edited film that somehow merited a theatrical release, I would've been able to deal.
Henson plays Mary Goodwin, a hitwoman working for a Boston crime-ring. It's a gig that puts food on the table and keeps her walk-in closet stuffed with a variety of guns and silencers, many of which essentially decorations as she doesn't seem to use anything else besides a conventional handgun for most of the film. One of the most basic rules of being an assassin is do not get emotionally attached to the humans whom you are are supposed to kill or the collateral damage you caused. Mary, however, cannot help herself when she finds Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), a young boy, passed out in an alley after retrieving his backpack from a petty thief. She picks him up and takes him back to her apartment.
Danny has been raised not to trust anyone, as he serves as drug/money-runner for a ruthless boss. You can imagine the orphan boy's apprehensions when someone enters his life and makes him breakfast and tries to watch out for him despite having no connection to him nor any obligation to do so. Mary tries to get him to behave by providing him a life less hostile, but she also has her own duties, working for her ex-boyfriend (Billy Brown) and his father (Danny Glover) doing work that is never quite explained. It involves a lot of shooting and several meetings in grungy warehouses with henchmen in black-leather. For all the talking they do, their meetings aren't very effective, and in that business, accuracy counts for everything.
Henson is mediocre here because she's never given anything to do. Her character is faceless, with no emotional arch, and even less personality outside of what she consistently brings to the table. She's essentially dropped into the film in place of literally any other actor, male or female, with nothing emphasizing her strengths as an actress. The only performance of note is Danny Glover, who is better than what this kind of material generally calls for, until his scene with Winston's Danny, where he looks as if he's reading cue-cards in a tone of voice that sounds like he's trying to grapple with just how awful some of his dialog is.
In short, no performer nor aesthetic stands out in Proud Mary, but look at what little the film has to offer in terms of its script. Writers John S. Newman (writer of Get Shorty - the TV series) and Christian Swegal create a film of odds and ends that distills the distillation of action thrillers essentially down to nothingness: a collection of noise and brooding ambiance that can't even be realized because Babak Najafi doesn't seem to have a clue how to pull it off. I suppose you could theoretically call this film the essence of an action movie, but even the essence of something should give you an idea of why people enjoy it or look to praise it. In that realm, Proud Mary is almost effectively joyless.
There will undoubtedly be people trying to defend Proud Mary on the basis that it is a female-centered action film and the genre of "women kicking ass" is in low supply these days. I couldn't agree more. But just like with some of the weaker elements present in Wonder Women, to look past these flaws is to put us and the films we watch at a disservice. Proud Mary shouldn't be forgiven because this genre is faltering; it should be criticized because Henson deserves much better than this. There's plenty of these mediocre star-driven vehicles hogging space in Redbox machines worldwide. We didn't need to to go to theater to experience the disappointment we at least didn't have to put on pants to see.