When the first poster for “Proud Mary” came about, the world had a collective scream to commemorate the film that people have been asking for forever: an action film with a black female lead. It’s hard to find films with black female leads in general, but one in a genre film kicking some serious ass? That hasn’t been seen in a lead role since the days of Pam Grier and Blaxploitation films. Most female action films, however slim those are in general, typically feature actresses like Scarlett Johannsson or Charlize Theron in the lead, but “Proud Mary” places Taraji P. Henson, an actress higher in the game than most, if not all actresses working today, in the role. The film world lost its collective mind…
…and then, “Proud Mary” went silent. The release date was never moved, nor was it ever pulled from the schedule, Sony Pictures just kind of…forgot about it. Leading up to the release, no trailer was released aside from its initial teaser trailer released in July. Another poster, replicated in three color styles was released, but Screen Gems basically tried their hardest to make sure the film was as hard to find as possible. It’s not out of the question for Screen Gems to withhold showing their films to press, especially in January, but for a film that looked to be a bigger tentpole for them, and garnered a fair amount of internet buzz, I was disappointed they didn’t. Then it got worse, press attending the press junket weren’t even allowed to see the film before interviewing the cast and crew of the film. Then, Sony dropped the bomb that “Proud Mary” would not screen any special Thursday night preview showings for the public before its Friday release, a move seemingly unheard of in this day and time. One has to wonder what’s so wrong with this film that garnered so much attention to deserve being thrown away so easily by a studio.
And listen, “Proud Mary” might not be great, but it’s certainly a lot better than its studio might believe it to be.
Mary (Taraji P. Henson) is an assassin working for a major crime family in Boston, headed by patriarch Benny (Danny Glover) and his son, and former love interest of Mary’s, Tom (Billy Brown). When a hit goes wrong and Mary leaves a young boy, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) orphaned, she tracks him down and takes him in after getting involved with a rival trafficking gang. Seeking to protect him to repent for killing Danny’s father, Mary impulsively tracks the rival gang, setting off a series of events that leads her to being hunted on both sides, all while trying to protect Danny from further danger.
Let’s go ahead and get the bad with “Proud Mary” out of the way so I can get onto the things that I liked about this film. “Proud Mary” is a pretty standard, paint-by-numbers action flick. The fight choreography isn’t spectacular, the stunt work isn’t seamless, the visual effects are average, the story is predictable and the clichés can often come heavy. Clocking in at only 89 minutes, there isn’t a lot of time for “Proud Mary” to build up its story and characters while also having time to have some killer action sequences, and both sides take a hit in the process of trying to fit both in such a short timeframe.
Not only that, when you surround one of the most vibrant actresses of her generation with bland, Lifetime Original Movie extras, they really make the disparity between the two even more noticeable. This is no more noticeable than in Glover’s performance as Benny. Glover is a legendary actor world renown for his many roles over the decades, but something is so incredibly off here. Glover is robotic, monotonous and seemingly wants to be anywhere but this film. I can’t pin down what’s wrong here, but there certainly is something going on we can’t see. It’s distracting for perhaps the only actor more qualified than our lead would give the worst performance in the film.
With that, though, it cannot be more overstated how truly wonderful Henson is in the film. The film might not give her a lot of room to breathe or develop the character in the way she was able to in films like “Hidden Figures” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” but she gets to have 10 tons of fun here, and she doesn’t waste it. A wonderful thing about Henson is that she has a wonderful array of emotions, and she’s fiery in every single one of them. Now, not “fiery” in the way that most women of color are described when they have a slight attitude, but in that Henson hits her extremes nicely. If she wants us to laugh, we’re going to laugh hard; if she wants us to cry, we will sob; if she wants us on the edge of our seats, we’re on the floor. Henson has a way of pinning emotions onto the audience without much character in a way that most actresses should be able to. It’s just such a shame she isn’t given much time to actually flesh out Mary as something that isn’t just a “guilty pleasure” heroine.
Shot by “The Shape of Water” and “Silent Hill” cinematographer Dan Lausten, “Proud Mary” is a lot grimier than its initial teaser posters might have initially implied. This isn’t a colorful, high-gloss action film, but a gritty Boston crime story where Henson gets to kick a whole lot of ass. There isn’t much here to marvel at, but for a neutral-toned, lower budget action film, Lausten does good work in keeping everything clean and cohesive. Lausten works really well with lighting, and he finds a way to make “Proud Mary” a darker film than one might expect it to be, but it’s attractive nonetheless.
While the score to the film doesn’t wow in any amazing way, the music supervision, more so just one scene (try to guess which song it was), hit me hard. I really appreciate anyone who can utilize music well in a film, and even if it was through its music supervisor, “Proud Mary” does it with style.
The good news: I liked “Proud Mary,” for the most part. It’s guilty pleasure fun that utilizes Henson’s capabilities as a badass more than we could’ve ever known her to be. The bad news: by all expectations, “Proud Mary” could’ve been one hell of an action film that stayed the course of time as the film that set women of color into the action genre to fight alongside the men and white women. Sure, this might still work in the long run for the film to set a precedent, but I guarantee you that the film itself might not always be the thing people harken back to. Still, it’s concise, fun, light, attractive, funny and surprisingly touching at points. Expectations might not have been met per se, but “Proud Mary” still has a good deal to work with worth checking out.
Directed by: Babak Najafi
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Billy Brown, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Neal McDonough, Margaret Avery, and Danny Glover.
Runtime: 89 minutes
Rating: R for violence.
Also available in Dolby Cinema.
Screen Gems presents, a Paul Schiff production, “Proud Mary”