A film review by Craig J. Koban April 16, 2018


2018, R, 89 mins.


Taraji P. Henson as Mary  /  Jahi Di’Allo Winston as Danny  /  Danny Glover as Benny  /  Billy Brown as Tom  /  Owen Burke as Jerome

Directed by Babak Najafi  /  Written by Christian Swegal, John Stuart Newman, and Steve Antin





PROUD MARY pulls an annoying game of bait and switch with audiences that's tipped off as early as its opening credit sequence.  

This introductory montage has the look, sound, and feel of a 1970's exploitation film, which initially had me hooked.  Unfortunately, and within a few minutes into the film, it becomes abundantly clear that PROUD MARY is neither set in the 70's, nor does it cheekily embrace its blaxploitation roots and instead offers up a fairly flavorless and painfully predictable modern day set action thriller that feels like it's made up of the spare regurgitated parts of better films that have come before it.  The narrative that unfolds over the course its relatively short 90 minute running nevertheless and oddly inspires frequent watch checking, seeing as it's penned with maximum adherence to tedious action film clichés and undercooked characters.   

That, and PROUD MARY is a lamentable waste of star Taraji P. Henson's sizable talents, which is made all the more shameful seeing as she plausibly inhabits the role of her kick ass and take no prisoners heroine.  There's nothing inherently wrong with an action film that's driven solely by a female lead character (as a matter of fact, recent examples like last year's gloriously underrated ATOMIC BLONDE proves that we need more), but PROUD MARY shows that girl powered genre films like this are just as capable of being as pedestrian and forgettable as any starring a man.  There's a kernel of a compelling angle sewn into the fabric of this story - cold and heartless hitwoman whose motherly instincts kick in when presented with watching over a child victim - but PROUD MARY rarely makes a compelling case for viewers to care about anyone and anything throughout.  The film delivers in a few scenes of visceral mayhem, but dramatic urgency is wholeheartedly lacking here. 



Henson does what she can with a criminally underwritten character in Mary, who's an extremely lethal and effective assassin working for a Boston mob family, led by crime boss Benny (Danny Glover, refreshingly playing a villain here), who took her in as a young runaway and taught her how to be a ruthless killer.  The beginning of the film opens with what appears to be a relatively routine hit for Mary, but after she commits the final death blow to her target she realizes, to her dismay, that his young son Danny (Jahi Di' Allo Winston) is alive and now an orphan.  The boy also never learns that Mary was his father's killer, who later turns to the streets and embarks on petty crimes for the local Russian mob.  One of its low level scumbags, (Xander Berkeley) beats on the boy when he doesn't get his jobs done properly, and when Mary learns what has happened to this abused child she steps in and takes out his lecherous heel of a boss. 

Unfortunately, that leads to Mary embarking on a makeshift mother/son relationship with the disillusioned boy, who's still blissfully unaware that his new savoir is indeed the same woman that murdered his father and sent him down his current criminal path.  Mary tries to keep the hot-headed and troubled kid safe, but in the meantime her unsanctioned hit has drawn attention of both Benny and key members of the Russian mob, which compels Mary to keep her actions a well guarded secret from her employer for as long as she can.  Unfortunately, one of Mary's ex-lovers - also employed by Benny, played by Billy Brown - begins to develop some trusts issues with Mary and has even larger issues with her taking in Danny.  When her hit on Danny's ex-handler is revealed to Benny (not to mention that Danny is the offspring of the target that was killed earlier), Mary soon realizes the pressure cooker of a situation that she's in, caught between both mob families with seemingly no where to run or hide. 

As I mentioned before, we need more female centered action films.  We really do.  Plus, Henson is fully credible in her role as the conflicted and tightly wound titular character.  She brings enough teeth clenched tenacity and emotional vulnerability that makes Mary rise well above the mediocre writing that's on display in the film.  The compelling angle to her character is that she's driven to save a life while actively and willfully being a part of a crime family that's frequently responsible for taking lives.  You immediately gain the sense that Mary is a wounded person whose whole life is driven and defined by violence, which is reflected in Henson's thankless performance.  The main problem, though, is that the script here does little to embellish her as a fully fleshed out character; we really learn next to nothing about Mary as a world weary criminal, which makes her arc to caregiver hard to give a damn about.   

The other characters that she's surrounded by are never afforded any more psychological grit either, especially Mary's old flame, who only seems to appear in the film as a lazy method to inject some cheaply tailored conflict into the proceedings.  Glover himself seems distant and reserved in the potentially juicy role as the mob boss that eventually has a huge axe to grind with his protégée, and he's barely in the film enough to make a sizeable and lasting impression as a memorably vicious baddie.  All we are really left with is the core dynamic between Mary and the boy, which should have been the emotional cornerstone of the narrative, but PROUD MARY seems a bit reticent to explore their whole problematic relationship in any intriguing detail.  And when it boils right down to it, the premise here is fairly perfunctory and on autopilot: A once ruthless killer developing a heart of gold while caring for a child has been done far better in films like LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, which PROUD MARY feels like it's lazily riffing off of. 

The only thing that could possibly save the paper thin and bland scripting would be the action scenes, and PROUD MARY most assuredly offers up ample blood letting.  Aside from a somewhat rousing climax - all unavoidably accompanied by the vocals of Tina Turner's "Proud Mary" serving as a rousing anthem to the adrenaline induced carnage -  most of the film's set pieces are awkwardly staged and edited, mostly because director Babak Najafu (LONDON HAS FALLEN) fails to give them a smooth sense of rhythm and flow.  Here's another damming problem: Mary emerges as a robotic killing machine that's able to plough through any target at any time and remain relatively and laughably unscathed.  She never misses and is virtually never hit.  Thinking back to ATOMIC BLONDE and, for example, its bravura one take sequence involving its lead character taking on multiple adversaries, leaving her bloodied and mightily bruised, I was reminded of how susceptible to pain and injury that character was.  That film was hyper stylized, but the action felt grounded and gritty, plus its hero was not the invulnerable super woman that Mary is here. 

Maybe PROUD MARY would have worked better if it didn't take itself so bloody seriously and simply adopted and harnessed the type of B-grade grindhouse vibe that its nifty opening credit sequence promised.  There's ample pleasure to be had in watching a tongue-in-check celebration of the blaxploitation flicks of yesteryear featuring tough as nails women taking it too multiple trigger happy male oppressors.  Unfortunately, PROUD MARY is a relatively joyless affair that rarely generates any interest in its characters and their predicaments, and the overall lack of conceptual imagination on display here is frankly this film's undoing.  Henson will emerge from this tiresomely dull action thriller mostly unscathed, but it's still disappointing to see an actress of her capable caliber be wasted in direct-to-video quality fare like this.  Even the giddy novelty of the aforementioned climax featuring Tina Turner urging her to "keep on burning" while mowing down bad guy after bad guy can't save PROUD MARY from the sheer weight of its awfulness.    

  H O M E