Proud Mary and all the images you see in this review are owned by Screen Gems
Directed by Babak Najafi
The big story around this film is that Sony (Screen Gems’s parent company) has basically buried this movie before it came out due to a severe lack of advertisement and promotion despite being everything that studios claim they want in films nowadays; i.e. a strong female lead and something that will appeal to black audiences. I mean it’s POSSIBLE that this film is utterly terrible which is WHY the promotion has been so low key, but even for a January release this seems to have been under represented; especially when stuff like The Bye Bye Man and Rings managed to get a decent amount of commercials and trailers prior to their releases. The trailer at looked good to me at least, but so did plenty of other trailers for movies that ended up being terrible, so who knows how this will turn out. Will this be another classic film that the studios were fools to have very little faith in, or are we in for a classic that will unfairly fall right below everyone’s radar? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with Mary Goodwin (Taraji P Henson) performing a hit on some dude for reasons that I’m SURE are quite justified, but in the process he finds out that *GASP* he had a little boy! I’m… sure she’s never dealt with that before, being a hired killer and all… so she decides to spend the next year afterwards looking for this kid named Danny (Jahi Di’Allo) and where he ended up after the sudden death by brain splatter, and she eventually finds him working for a Fagin knock off named Uncle (Xander Berkeley) who naturally treats the kid like shit and barely feeds him. SURELY the best way to inspire hope in your under aged workers! That whole “catch more flies with honey” thing is bullshit anyway! Mary though doesn’t seem to like the current situation so she goes and blows the dudes brains out and takes the kid home with her. Sadly for her though, he wasn’t just some schmuck using kids to sell cocaine; he was connected to the Russian Mob which is in an uproar and believes that the crime family Mary is a part of that’s led up by Benny (Danny Glover) as well as his son Tom (Billy Brown) are responsible. I mean… they’re RIGHT considering Mary was the one who did it, but she’s not exactly telling everyone THAT pertinent detail, so the three of them have to find a way to keep the peace between the two families or prepare for an all-out war that could destroy them both. While this is going on, Danny is trying to figure out just who this mysterious lady is that not only saved him from a crappy boss, but is also letting him stay in her apartment free of charge. Will Danny find out the terrible secret that Mary is keeping that motivated her to seek him out in the first place? Will Benny and Tom figure out who’s REALLY responsible for the chaos this one death has caused, and will Mary be considered expendable if they do? Can Taraji P Henson kick enough ass in this to be the NEXT big action movie revelation!? Hey, if Brendan Fraser pulled it off, why not her!?
Proud Mary is a mixed bag to be sure, but I feel like it’s the kind of film that’s slightly better than the sum of its parts and will get a bit more traction as time goes on. There are problems on pretty much every level of this movie that sadly keeps it from living up to its TRUE potential, but there’s enough of the original vision in there as well as Taraji P Henson’s total commitment to the role that gives it a unique space to occupy in the recent revival of hit man action films in the wake of John Wick. I was hoping that this would be one of the big surprises of the year which might have been a bit unfair to the movie as it did build up my expectations, but the final product simply is what it is; an okay action film that should have been better and shouldn’t feel as desperately needed in the modern cinematic landscape. Seriously, if we can get like a million Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher, James Bond, and Mission Impossible movies, there’s certainly room for more than just Black Panther and the occasional self-aware oddity like Black Dynamite in terms of black centered action films; ESPECIALLY ones with female leads!
The thing you’ll want to know going into this is that’s really only an action film in fits and spurts rather than an unending roller coaster of carnage that the one trailer Sony bothered to release seems to indicate. Oh don’t get me wrong; the action is GREAT when they get around to it, but this is much more of an old school gangster film than anything else with Mary having to circumvent the crime family she’s been raised into and a young kid potentially being getting sucked into that world as well. It’s actually a pretty good version of that story on the broad strokes scripting level with Jahi Di’Allo giving in a really great performance as a young man trying to survive in a world where he could be killed at any moment and Taraji P Henson trying to find a measure of personal fulfillment in being there for the guy. Heck, even Danny Glover turns in a really great performance as the patriarch of the crime family who uses guilt and intimidation in equal measure to keep Mary in line; constantly reminding her that he gave her everything she has and hinting at how easily it can all be taken away. There are problems though when you dig down into the specifics with some rather odd choices as far as character motivations, particularly with Mary who PRESUMABLY has been killing people for the last twenty years yet in this ONE INSTANCE she’s suddenly feeling conflicted. I mean… it’s KIND of the standard template for any sort of movie about a killer trying to get out of the game (even Crank which was basically a parody of such things indulges in it briefly), but it’s still hard to buy that out of all the people she’s killed in the past (some of whom HAD to have been fathers as well) that THIS is the one that finally breaks her resolve and forces her to reexamine her life as well as contemplate running away from the family. There should have been more there, like maybe going into how she’s tried to escape in the past or how young Danny reminds her of someone she used to know, but it’s sadly absent from this movie that otherwise handles the whole mother/son relationship pretty well.
So there are points where the writing feels a bit weak, but that’s not the biggest problem here. What really sinks this movie is the really bad editing that makes everything move way too fast and feel entirely perfunctory. There’s a scene early on where Benny and his top officials go to see the Russian crime boss to see if they can come to an amicable agreement over handling the death of one of his officers. You’d think that this would be a great moment to not only set up the Russians as a threat, but to also show us why Benny is still the head of the family; and yet it’s over in like a minute and a half for no reason whatsoever. There’s no history explored between Benny and the crime boss; nor is there any clear outward antagonism between Mary, Tom, and any of the Russian guys to indicate that the current situation is a powder keg ready to explode! Heck, I don’t think anyone on the Russian side besides Rade Šerbedžija even TALKS, so what’s the point in them even going there when it could have been handled by a phone call!? It feels like everything with the Russians was shot in post because there are scenes LIKE this one that aren’t as poorly put together, particularly the birthday party scene at Benny’s house and a rather excellent standoff before we jump in the big explosive finale, and the whole subplot ends up falling off the face of the Earth even though it’s CLEARLY stated within the film that that situation has not been fully resolved yet. Even if we were to ignore the Russian subplot, there are still some odd editing choices throughout as scenes feel blocked and staged for maximum interchangeability (we’ll just put it all together in the editing room), and it ends up feeling like actors aren’t even in the same room half the time. The whole thing feels like an uneven mess because half the scenes feel like ambitionless bottom dollar television show fare while the other half are well executed, understand the nuances of the story, and show off a decent amount of filmmaking panache. This also applies to the music which is some of the most stock action movie orchestrations I’ve heard in some time and it’s a shame considering the marketing indicates a much more lively soundtrack that centers black musicians which is really only saved for a few key moments and the big finale. Maybe there were two separate crews working on this thing that were VERY mismatched in terms of talent and half the damn thing was nearly unsalvageable. I have no idea, but what we end up with is a movie that’s clearly straining under the constraints of its production to be the fantastic film that we can only get glimpses of when it’s firing on all cylinders.
Speaking of which, I do want to reiterate that there are some FANTASTIC moments in this film; especially the extended shoot out at the end which has possibly the best pairing of a song with an action scene since Hardcore Henry used Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. Now sure, they clearly don’t have the kind of budget or stunt work to pull off something comparable to John Wick (there’s a distinct lack of car chases in this movie as well), but it’s still a hell of a good time to watch Taraji P Henson go off on all these jabronis and prove how much of a badass she can be when pushed to edge. It also has a wonderful ending that caps the shootout off with a very decisive and cathartic note that I think will resonate with a lot of women the same way John Wick’s super intense man pain connected with dudes. A lot can be made up if a story ends on just the right note (which also means it can be ruined by a bad ending by the way) which is the saving grace of this film as it’d be a lot harder to defend if it hadn’t pulled out all the stops in the third act.
Maybe they needed a better director as the dude’s LAST film was pretty damn awful, or maybe the studio didn’t realize what they had on their hands and left it to flounder during production to then ALSO let it just quietly go to the wayside with a much understated marketing campaign. Whatever the root-cause of the issues here, it ultimately doesn’t matter as the end result ends up being a disappointment. I’d like to see more films like this or even more Taraji P Henson action films as she clearly seems up to this kind of material, but hopefully it only gets better from here as this is AT BEST a solid foundation to build a much better series of films off of; either through direct sequels or simply by having studios commit to making more movies like this. Who knows? Maybe we could get a Proud Mary/John Wick crossover movie! You KNOW they’re not about to stop at part three, right?
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