You could be forgiven, after seeing the poster, for thinking Proud Mary would be a fun, action-packed tribute to the female-driven blaxploitation classics of the ‘70s. Or maybe you saw the trailer and expected an ass-kicking, female-driven John Wick-alike, all efficiency and headshots, starring the great Taraji P. Henson. Sadly, even though the opening titles greet the audience with poppy orange graphics and wah-wah guitar, and even though Henson does wield pistols at multiple junctures, you’d be wrong to predict either of those outcomes. Proud Mary is an absolute mess, incoherent to the point of ineptitude, and certainly not something befitting the talents of its star.
Let’s work backwards.
Proud Mary is, ostensibly, the story of Mary Goodwin (Henson), a contract killer for a Boston crime family led by Benny (Danny Glover). In the film’s opening minutes, she kills a man in his apartment, only to discover her target's tweenaged son Danny playing video games in the next room. Over the next year, she watches over Danny from afar as he becomes a drug mule for a rival family, and when he falls afoul of them, she takes him in, getting swept up in a turf war even as she attempts to play surrogate mother to her young ward.
I am sorry to report that the above summary makes Proud Mary sound better than it is.
It’s possible I’ve never seen another theatrically-released film this completely derailed by its editing. Paradoxically, the film is both molasses-paced and constantly in a hurry to get itself over and done with, as evidenced by its final scene literally playing under the closing credit crawl. Dialogue scenes full of uninteresting exposition drag on and on, despite being edited down to the point of losing all coherency. There’s no sense of rhythm or mood or performance here; it’s like the editors made an assembly cut, halved the length of every shot, and called it a day - with the temp music left in. Some sequences blend together like run-on sentences, while others are bookended by multiple flat establishers that don’t help tell the story at all. Many scenes, frustratingly, could visibly have been cut in a more dramatic fashion, but the clumsiest edits have the distinct aura of being due to lack of material. They’re certainly not choices you’d make if you had other options.
Director Babak Najafi (London Has Fallen) directed Proud Mary, but you couldn't tell by watching it. Dialogue scenes are shot with the most basic of coverage; the film’s few bits of visual storytelling are shot hamfistedly, with no geography or drama; and key narrative beats are seemingly left out entirely. Many shots are so perfunctory, they feel like Najafi had his camera operator just point his lens out his van window at locations or vehicles on the way home. The knowingly badass style hinted at by the opening titles is absent in the body of the film, and tragically, even the few action scenes are failures. There’s one solid setpiece towards the end of the film, scored by a cover of the eponymous Creedence song (which also plays over the credits), which taunts the audience with the fun DTV trash this could have been (instead of dull DTV trash), but even that is over too quickly and feels tonally out of place with this dour organised-crime slog.
It always comes down to the screenplay, and Proud Mary’s is third-tier TV-movie fare. Its story of vaguely-defined organised crime groups is given a near-total lack of development for any of the characters involved. At one point, a character I didn’t know was being interrogated by another character I barely knew, being asked questions about characters whose names I might as well have never heard before. All the storytelling takes place in leaden expository scenes inside Venetian-blinded offices; it has all the hallmarks of a movie skimping hard on budget.
These tired tropes continue into the character of Mary, sketched so thinly the film's cardboard cinema standees have more depth. After her introduction, which takes place mostly under the opening titles, Mary immediately and almost completely disappears while the film sets up Jahi Di’Allo Winston as Danny, re-appearing without a proper introduction only to begin a story of guiltily adopted motherhood. Her character arc takes her, with depressing predictability, towards a hackneyed, child-centric redemption apparently earned by buying Danny new clothes and killing a whole bunch more people (in addition to Danny's father). I’ll give you one guess as to the gender of all three of this film’s writers.
The one flickering lantern of hope in this mess is held by the film’s two lead actors. The breakout star is young Winston, playing the film’s real main character and displaying impressive range in his second feature film role. Winston provides most of the film’s laughs and much of its emotional heft, such that it is, and he and Henson share some strong chemistry. For her own part, Henson isn’t given much to work with - even as an action character, she only gets a single good one-liner, at the film’s climax - but she gives the role her all, trying her damnedest to create a character out of what might as well be script confetti. It’s a testament to Henson’s sheer talent and magnetism that she manages to escape the movie largely unscathed and with dignity intact. The same can’t be said of the supporting cast, who mostly slide on and offscreen making little impression - especially Danny Glover, whose sleepwalking performance is a downright embarrassment (and barely even visible at times, thanks to a bizarre decision to heavily backlight half the film through the aforementioned Venetian blinds). But then, I doubt Glover was given much encouragement by his director.
Proud Mary being as bad as it is counts as a minor tragedy, given what it could have been for its star. This should have been Taraji P. Henson’s shot at her own franchise, a fun romp updating old blaxploitation standbys for the modern era and offering the world the woman-of-colour action hero it absolutely wants and needs. Instead, it’s almost staggeringly poorly-made, treading heavily on boring archetypes and doing a profound injustice by its lead actor. We've all criticised the barely-advertised nature of Proud Mary’s cinema release, but upon actually seeing it, it’s amazing it hit theatres at all.