Taraji P. Henson is a star. She’s an Oscar nominated actress who just last year headlined a surprise smash hit that was up for Best Picture in Hidden Figures. She’s the lead on one of television’s biggest hits with Empire. Naturally there was plenty of interest in Taraji P. Henson’s first turn headlining an action flick in Proud Mary, which would be opening head-to-head against Liam Neeson’s latest action thriller The Commuter. As the release grew nearer and nearer, there seemed to be no buzz around Proud Mary. There were plenty of critics anxious to see the film but the studio, the Sony subsidiary Screen Gems, didn’t screen the movie for critics, and even withheld the film from the typical Thursday night public screenings. What was the deal? Could it be that Proud Mary was an ungodly disaster of a movie, one that must be buried in order to protect its star? The answer, in short, is no. Proud Mary isn’t a good movie but it’s not the kind disastrous, career-killing debacle. It’s just an action flick that underwhelms on the action front despite a thoroughly committed performance by its star.
London Has Fallen director Babak Najafi opens Proud Mary with a montage of Mary (Henson), a professional killer, preparing for a job as The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” plays over the stylized retro credits. There’s a feeling that maybe, just maybe, Proud Mary might be some kind of badass blend of Pam Grier’s Coffy and the recent action of the John Wick films. Mary, wielding a gun with a silencer, carries out her lethal hit on her target, only to discover the target’s son is in the other room unaware of the murder that has just taken place. One year later, that son, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) is living on the streets and slinging drugs for Uncle (Xander Berkeley), an abusive lowlife. From afar, Mary keeps a watchful eye over Danny. When Danny is involved in a scuffle and left unconscious on the streets, Mary intervenes, taking in the young boy. She then decides to try and get Danny removed from Uncle’s iron grasp, and the ensuing negotiation leads to a violent confrontation.
The death of the scumbag Uncle complicates life for Mary. It ignites a turf war between Mary’s boss, Benny (Danny Glover), and the Russian cartel run by Luca (Rade Serbedzija). You’d think the screenplay by the trio of Steve Antin, John Stewart Newman, and Christian Swegal would be setting up a scenario where Mary and Danny are in the middle of a gang war and only Mary’s sleek skills as an assassin can get them out of the bloodbath, but you’d be wrong. Instead, Proud Mary meanders with a lot of repetitive dialogue that aims to set up more of a personal tension that will explode in the climax. However, it just takes so long for anything in Proud Mary to explode that you’ll find yourself looking at your watch and wondering exactly when they’re going to get to the fireworks factory.
Mary keeps the fact that she’s the murderer of Danny’s father a secret, and Benny’s son Tom (Billy Brown), whom used to have a romantic relationship with Mary, deduces the relationship and uses it for leverage. Hard as Babak Najafi and his trio of screenwriters try, they just can’t muster any tension out of these dynamics. It becomes more and more frustrating to watch as characters continue to hash everything out through words that fail to escalate. This is a movie very much in need of more action to raise the stakes, but Najafi is withholding everything for the final battle. When Henson’s Mary is let loose in the finale, there’s a bit of relief, a feeling of finally.
Adding to the disappointment of Proud Mary is just how much energy Taraji P. Henson brings to her character. Even though the script underserves the character with little depth beyond efficiency as an assassin and a maternal instinct, Henson brings forth both sides of the character with conviction. Henson’s Mary can be tough or tender depending on the scene. The film becomes all the more disappointing when Mary is unleashed in the film’s action finale, as Henson presents a deft physicality to her action persona. I just can’t help but wonder what kind of action star Taraji P. Henson could be with a better script and stronger director.
Proud Mary went through some obvious edits from its intended form, leaving the film with a choppy feel throughout. Regardless, the film has no sense of pacing and for much of its scant running time is a real boring slog to sit through. It’s especially frustrating because you can see where this really could’ve been a kick-ass movie that blended the Blaxploitation attitude of defiance with the modern action aesthetics, but the script and direction of Proud Mary just aren’t interested in going there. Even though Proud Mary isn’t Taraji P. Henson’s proudest moment on the screen, it never deserved to buried by the same studio that was willing to screen The Emoji Movie for critics.