I’m a fan of cinematic garbage, especially this time of year after going through a gauntlet of award season movies and feeling the need for release. I like trash that plays up action, gunplay and reckless disregard for the rules of reality. Thankfully, January is Hollywood’s official dumpster fire when it comes to movies, so there are multiple options at the local cineplex. After much consternation, I decided to go diving into the action-drama “Proud Mary,” starring Taraji Henson.
Old-school blaxploitation films are the shit. I grew up loving the kind of low-rent, high-energy cheese-fests of the ‘70s, featuring talents like Rudy Ray Moore, Fred “The Hammer” Thompson and Richard Roundtree. It was an amazing era for cinema; truly independent filmmakers were out cobbling together movies with low budgets and lofty goals. Part of me hoped “Proud Mary” would be a fun, no-holds-barred homage to an era that evoked the great Pam Grier. Unfortunately, it’s a by-the-numbers piece of B cinema and never allows itself to have any fun.
Mary (Taraji P. Henson) is a professional hit woman who works for the Boston mafia. She’s a cold, calculating and skilled assassin. We meet Mary in a hastily staged prologue where she guns down a target. After killing him in cold blood, she realizes—gasp!—he had a son. Her actions have orphaned the boy and she feels a little bit guilty about it. Not that guilty, mind you, because a year later, the kid is working for local gangs. He runs drugs and is one bad decision away from being a statistic. When they cross paths again, Mary takes in young Danny and tries to make amends for popping two caps in his dad’s ass.
As I mentioned, “Proud Mary” suffers greatly from not having any fun with its premise. Henson is such a gifted actor but feels strangely repressed as a straight-laced gun-for-hire. Pairing her with a kid could have been an interesting dramatic turn, like Luc Besson’s exceptional “The Professional.” However, director Babak Najafi seems more interested in trying to slather the film with style than explore any substance. For a movie about contract killers and perpetual murder, it refuses to revel in the brutal world within which the characters exist. The movie makes “Boston Underworld” feel like a collection of Eurotrash clichés.
“Proud Mary” is the first film I’ve seen in a while where glaring technical deficiencies really affect the end product. The cinematography is flat, with uninspired and unflattering angles. The colors are all subdued and muted. The editing is haphazard and moves back and forth at times with cuts lasting no longer than a fraction of a second. I’m pretty forgiving when it comes to technicalities of filmmaking. Not every movie has a $100 million budget and remote-control IMAX camera rigs. Blaxploitation films I mentioned earlier certainly weren’t technical marvels, but they still managed to tell entertaining stories; “Proud Mary” can’t even do that. It commits the most unforgivable cinematic sin: It’s boring and uninspired.
This is a star vehicle basically saved by its star. Henson is a good actress, with visible sparks and embers of what she could have done with some better material. Her dialogue is thin and watery. The plotting is predictable. There simply isn’t anything in the movie to recommend, unless viewers are the world’s biggest Taraji P. Henson enthusiasts. Even then, time would be better served watching “Hidden Figures” or “Hustle & Flow.”
The action/crime genre has been revived lately with extremely watchable fare like the “John Wick” films and “Atomic Blonde.” “Proud Mary” fails to engage and produces so few memorable moments. It’s too bad because I’d love to see more gritty crime thrillers with a sizable chunk of brutal action. The film is a missed opportunity on a number of levels and so much wasted potential.