A dreary mess of missed opportunities, “Proud Mary” isn’t quite as bad as some of the other glorified direct-to-video dreck that’s slipped onto screens in recent months (shout out to the likes of “Marauders” and “Collide”), but it’s nevertheless significantly more disappointing. This should have been a sure thing, especially at a time that feels ripe for a modified revival of blaxploitation cinema; to paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard: “All you need to make a movie is Taraji P. Henson with a gun and a good reason to use it.”
Throw in a soundtrack that can keep up with the “Empire” star’s natural swagger and you’re really cooking with gas. How the hell do you mess that up? How do you start with “‘Foxy Brown’ meets ‘John Wick’” and end up with a bargain bin action vehicle that will bore fans of either and frustrate fans of both?
To begin with, you rush into production with a flavorless script that isn’t remotely interested in its generic characters or the bland criminal underworld they’re trying to survive. Set in a Boston so anonymous it might as well be played by Toronto, “Proud Mary” couldn’t be more nakedly indebted to John Cassavetes’ “Gloria” if screenwriter Steve Antin just repurposed one of his old drafts from the “Gloria” remake he once wrote for Sidney Lumet.
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Henson stars as Mary, a hit woman for one of the city’s most fearsome organized crime family’s (the gang seems to consist of approximately four people, and one of them is 71-year-old Danny Glover). Introduced in a prologue that’s as choppy and unmotivated as most of the scenes that follow, Mary is a contract killer for the modern world: She lives in a sleek modernist loft, she drives a Maserati, and she never leaves the house without a fresh smack of lipstick and several loaded weapons.
The first person we see her use them on is a bookie with a pre-teen son named Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston); she takes out the target, but she can’t bring herself to kill the kid (who’s too busy playing video games to even notice the woman standing behind him in an atomic blonde wig). A year later, Mary is still keeping tabs on the boy, possessed by a maternal instinct that a movie this lazy naturally confuses for characterization.
But while Danny might need some guidance, it doesn’t seem like he needs much in the way of protection; he’s already mobbed up and dressed in violence, and Mary looks at him with the knowing helplessness of an adult who’s always been owned by the same forces that offered her a way out. It’s only a matter of time before she intervenes, saving Danny from the abusive Eastern Europeans he works for and inadvertently sparking a gang war in the process. Eighty-five listless and largely incoherent minutes later, a lot of people are dead.
Of course, the premise isn’t the problem — “Proud Mary” could have copied “The Professional” scene-for-scene as long as it brought some of its own flair to the table. But after an opening title sequence that’s set to “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” and stylized like a Pam Grier classic, the film abandons most of its color and all of its soul. For a few seconds there, it seems like the movie might actually deliver on the promise of its marketing campaign (which was totally badass until the moment it suspiciously ceased to exist). But then, just like that, any hint of funk is promptly switched out in favor of those ominous fart sounds that soundtrack basic cable procedurals, and you know you’re in for another Babak Najafi special.
Najafi is still an up-and-comer with relatively little on his resumé, but it would seem that the “London Has Fallen” director has a real flair for the forgettable; his style appears to be a complete absence of style. Every scene is cut to the same erratic rhythm, every location is so under-lit that it feels like the movie has something to hide (it’s hard to believe this was shot by the same DP who did “Crimson Peak” and “The Shape of Water”), and every dull shootout is slapped together with the clumsiness this script deserves. Of course, it all builds up to a limp firefight that’s soundtracked to the title song, and of course that firefight takes place in some depressing warehouse.
It’s hard to tell if Najafi is cutting around Henson’s stiffness, or if the gracelessness of his approach is just making her look uncomfortable. Either way, the actress is so fierce when she’s standing still — so good at inflecting even the most basic lines with a palpable kill-or-be-killed sharpness — that you can’t but notice how comparatively awkward she seems when the bullets start to fly. It’s almost a blessing in disguise that “Proud Mary” is so light on action, as Henson and Winston generate some real chemistry during the low-key moments they share together, both of them doing a fine job of negotiating between violence and vulnerability.
In a movie that often feels like it’s blindly aiming for a Bressonian degree of affectlessness (Najafi hitting the bullseye with Glover’s labored, monotone delivery), it’s impressive that at least two of its actors were able to force through some real emotion. And it’s a good thing that their characters genuinely care about each other, because “Proud Mary” sure doesn’t, and most of the people watching it won’t either.
“Proud Mary” is now playing in theaters.