Published on January 17th, 2018 | by Ian Goodwillie0
A cast led by Taraji P. Henson can’t save this hohum action movie that was better when they called it John Wick or The Professional.
There was some interesting buzz around the release of Proud Mary, mainly because it seemed to come out of nowhere. Pre-roll trailers in theatres were few and far between. It felt like TV promos only started popping up a couple of weeks before its release. Was there a press junket for the film’s lead, Taraji P. Henson, arguably one of the biggest and most talented stars on TV? Not really. And, as the cherry on the top of it all, there were no pre-release screenings for critics.
People started asking why a film with a primarily black cast lead by Henson and Danny Glover was seemingly being buried? Then the movie dropped and people watched it. The reason why was quite obvious.
Proud Mary is the story of Mary, a hitwoman/enforcer for a Boston based crime family. In the opening scene, she performs a hit on a guy we later learn was a bookie who owed the wrong people a lot of money. After completing her mission, she realizes that the bookie has a son who is now an orphan. Cut to a year later and Mary has been keeping tabs on the kid who is now living on the streets and working for an opposing crime family who do not treat him well. His situation and her guilt set off her maternal instincts which lead her to upset the status quo and instigate a turf war in her quest to free herself and save the kid.
The few TV promos that aired leading up to the film’s release made it look like the next John Wick. A virtually superhuman assassin/hitperson/vigilante goes rogue to achieve their goal. To the credit of Proud Mary, the film somewhat intentionally forges its own path by not ending up being a John Wick clone. But maybe it should have been.
There is very little action in the first two thirds of the movie. Mary, through exposition, is built up as a master at what she does. In reality, the viewer sees very little of that as she only performs two hits, neither of which are especially complex or intense. Eventually, she teams up with her ex-boyfriend Tom to attack their gang’s rivals. Then, very quickly after that, she must fight her own gang family to save the boy she ostensibly adopted only a few days earlier in the biggest action scene in the movie.
Now, a metric ton of action isn’t necessary in every movie about assassins/hitpeople/vigilantes. Proud Mary chooses to spend a lot of time laying out the lives of the characters, through a lot of exposition, in an attempt to build a connection to them. They talk about the past a lot and some of it works nicely.
That being said, what the film chooses to cover in the exposition is strange. The movie spends a surprising amount of time reminding us that Mary and Tom used to be a thing. Yet, it spends very little time on why the kid doesn’t care that Mary killed his father and has adopted her as his new family so quickly.
The problem is that all of this does little to build the mythos of Mary as the powerhouse hitwoman she suddenly becomes in the final firefight, a scene exceedingly reminiscent of what you might find in a John Wick movie. There just isn’t the right build up to it. The movie tells us she’s great at what she does but very little time showing it. Again, there are some very exposition heavy scenes laying out history the viewer just doesn’t need to know rather than showing Mary kicking ass and taking names.
Because of this, there is a lack of tension in the movie. In the end, the plot is quite mundane and hits some very familiar action flick beats. The hitperson who wants out of the life. Latent maternal instincts kicking in. The immediate bond between hero and child. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t but the movie needed the action to help pick the pace up which was missing from much of the film.
On top of that, there is one very bad choice in Proud Mary. Specifically, the choice to literally play the song “Proud Mary” underneath the final fight. Yes, everyone watching the movie knows that the song and film have the same title but the song does not fit the energy of the scene at all. It actually detracts and distracts from it.
The only person more annoyed by the song choice than me is John Fogerty. At least I saw the movie first before being annoyed by it.
Taraji P. Henson is outstanding in this movie, as are Danny Glover and Neal McDonough. Henson is incredibly engaging, does great work with the material, and would make one hell of a convincing hitwoman. Anyone who has watched Empire or Person of Interest should know just how incredible she is. The most criminal sin of Proud Mary is that such a talented actress was cast in the lead role to breathe life into frequently mundane material as best she could.
John Wick. Columbiana. Leon the Professional. These are movies that take similar, though not identical, concepts as Proud Mary and make them in to something special. Keeping in mind that it doesn’t need to be the same as these movies to be successful, there was a lot of potential in Proud Mary be something amazing that went unrealized.
It just came up short.