Proud Mary has all the practical components. It functions as a tribute to the blaxploitation era, kicking off the entire film with the funkadelic vibes of ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’ by The Temptations. Drawing inspiration from Luc Besson’s Léon, it touches upon a complicated family relationship that is stoked in turf wars and mob life. Lastly, in an age where diverse representation has been demanded and voiced, Proud Mary stars one of the best working actresses today in Taraji P. Henson (Empire, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Hidden Figures).
However, for all of its credible features which were designed to enhance its premise doesn’t stop Proud Mary from being an underwhelming film.
Despite its perceived best efforts, Proud Mary is a film that is unsure of its own identity. There is an absence of conviction as it struggles to ascertain its goal where surprise or action thrills become a secondary interest. It lacks a precise rhythm, lazily chopping between nostalgic undertones, uninspired dialogue and the occasional action set piece. The various details it wants to incorporate, such as family, redemption and second chances are rushed through within its thinly veiled plot that falls flat after its energetic opening titles. Rather than presenting something credible, it’s content by existing and playing safe, blandly reinforcing formulaic clichés when films like John Wick and Atomic Blonde have put their own unique stamp on the genre.
It’s obvious that Proud Mary wants to summon the spirit of Pam Grier and Vivica A. Fox which Taraji P. Henson is more than capable of in following in their footsteps. But with all the talent she possesses in abundance, the film never really knows what to do with it.
This is chiefly down to its specific lack of attention and investment on its titular character Mary (Taraji P. Henson). She’s a contract killer working for an organised crime family embroiled in a turf war with the mob. But one assignment leaves her with a guilty remorse. After leaving Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) orphaned and concerned for his safety after he falls into a life of mob crime, she tracks the young boy down and becomes a surrogate parent, protecting him at all costs.
The mother-son dynamic allows Taraji to display her trademark combination of fierceness with a hopeful yet resolute attitude. However, with its focussed relationship between Mary and Danny, Proud Mary suddenly becomes neglectful, forgetting to promote Mary herself. She is a passenger in her own film where her motivations are only established through plot exposition. Other characters such as Tom (Billy Brown) or Benny (Danny Glover) seem to speak on her behalf, ‘mansplaining’ her commitment to the crime family without allowing her to influence the plot, express an emotion or embark on an opportunity to outsmart her opponents. The distorted pacing doesn’t help: Proud Mary doesn’t want to slow down or pause to understand her motivations or her skills as a contract killer. Her generic and objectified repertoire is restricted to materialistic qualities – having an assembly of guns, her Maserati car, her lavish apartment, spot-on make-up and her sexy disguises, leaving Taraji to pick up the heavy load where the script is completely limited.
For a film that has all the hallmarks of female empowerment, it fails to grasp that idea, lacking the finesse to combine the badass element of Mary’s persona and her intense desire to escape, which comes as a surprise without any pre-text to set it up. Throwing Danny and a ‘mothering’ element into the equation seems like a cheap fix, a ‘get out of jail’ card to cover up its shortcomings without really defining its importance. The longer it went on, you wondered whether Proud Mary started out as a concept script as another film entirely with the female protagonist angle and its blaxploitation presence worked in as a last minute afterthought. Because there is no consistent balance in its storytelling, the time that could have been devoted to Mary’s insight is frequently directed to Tom, Benny or Danny, reinforcing its male gaze and dominance throughout and leaving Mary out of place within the film.
Whether its weak character development or its mundane action scenes, it’s superficial premise lacks tension, suspense or an intelligence to suspend all disbelief (if it was genuine enough to be a parody like Black Dynamite). Besides the opening titles showcasing Mary in her element, there’s nothing distinctly rememberable. Director Babak Najafi (London Has Fallen) opts for darkly lit shots, but there is no passionate style or substance, especially with scenes which are designed to make its audience care.
The frustrating thing about Proud Mary is that it’s not necessarily the worst film you will ever see, but you expect more from it. It essentially becomes a wasted opportunity on all levels, filled with so many predictable moments that you’ve seen in countless films. But most importantly, it lacks that beating heartbeat and simple distinction that became so synonymous with films such as Foxy Brown, Jackie Brown, Cleopatra Jones, Atomic Blonde and even Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
Proud Mary falls disappointedly short of those standards and even when Tina Turner’s classic song enters the frame and Mary is finally allowed to exercise her qualities, it too late by then to actually care. Proud Mary could have introduced its audience to another hero to root for, especially when the popular market has been dominated by the likes of James Bond, Jason Bourne and Ethan Hunt. It could have reignited the flame that blaxploitation films revelled in during its heyday in the 70s. But sadly it never reaches its full potential, and Taraji deserves better than this.
Dir: Babak Najafi
Scr: John Stuart Newman, Christian Swegal & Steve Antin
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Billy Brown, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Neal McDonough, Margaret Avery, Xander Berkeley, Rade Serbedzija, Erik LaRay Harvey & Danny Glover
Prd: Andrea Ajemian, Tai Duncan, Glenn S. Gainor, Taraji P. Henson, Mark Anthony Little & Paul Schiff
DOP: Dan Laustsen
Music: Fil Eisler
Runtime: 89 minutes
Proud Mary is available to download and keep on July 16 and on DVD July 30