So often Proud Mary comes so close to being good. As it rolls along, its near misses become less disappointing and more infuriating. Proud Mary is a genre film that never fully embraces the genre it’s setting itself in.
Everything about the film is either a direct or indirect nod to Blaxploitation, either to specific films or to the genre as a whole. Except Proud Mary never really feels comfortable being a Blaxploitation film. Instead it wants to be its own thing, which is fine. Except its own thing is tonally jarring and inconsistent.
Mary (Taraji P. Henson) is a hit man for Benny (Danny Glover) and his family. The notion of an orphan raised by a crime lord and then turned into a tool for the crime lord is well worn material. The twist of both gender and race is refreshing and opens up new avenues of exploration. Unfortunately Proud Mary keeps turning into dead ends.
The film starts out with Mary doing her morning workout routine, choosing her weapons, and breaking into an apartment to kill a man. It’s a hell of a way to open up a movie but it’s also where Proud Mary takes its first misstep. Mary checks the house for any witnesses and stumbles upon a young boy, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) playing video games. Horror stricken and riddled with guilt, she backs away.
Flash forward a year later, a writing device that always sets alarm bells off. Often times screenwriters will employ this device as a way to fast forwarding to events they think the audience will find more interesting. As in the case of Proud Mary, we find out that Mary has been secretly spying on Danny for a year.
Spying but evidently not doing anything. Within that year Danny has become homeless and is starving and working as a drug and money courier for Uncle (Xander Berkeley). Danny steals some money from Uncle as he woozily confesses because he was hungry. Danny is so malnourished that when someone steals his backpack he chases him down and faints from the exertion.
All of this, the drug running, money laundering, homelessness, and near starvation, under the watchful eye of Mary. If she’s watching him because of guilt than why hasn’t she done anything beforehand? When Danny faints, Mary rides in and takes him back to her place. Yet, somehow the homelessness thing just wasn’t dire enough.
By itself we could merely chalk this up to necessary suspension of disbelief. This is a genre picture after all. Genre pictures don’t require characters and the world to function in the way they would in the real world. They are only required to work in the way the genre requires them to.
Or they would if Proud Mary weren’t trying to simultaneously pay homage to a genre and almost be embarrassed by the genre at the same time. The screenwriters, John S. Newman and Christian Swegal, have written a bare bones script but it’s hardly a complete skeleton. We learn backstories and vital information through dialogue but it’s never clever or subtle. Scenes will stop dead cold so characters can talk about things they clearly already know and have no need to express, except to let us know vital information.
Insult to injury, they make the classic mistake of conflating a strong woman with strong maternal instincts. Much of Proud Mary consists of Mary and Danny talking. In of itself this would be fascinating cinema verite. Except they don’t talk about anything. Much of the time each scene is a copy of the one before. Mary asks if Danny is hungry. Danny makes a sarcastic remark. Mary tells him to watch his language. Before Mary leaves, she tells Danny not to go into her room, which he inevitably does, like any child told not to do something, and discovers her cadre of weapons.
The sad part is the meat of the story is actually a wonderful and pitch perfect plot for a bare bones genre picture such as Proud Mary. Mary killed Uncle because of how he treated Danny. The family who Uncle worked for is now out to find Uncle’s murderer. Benny agrees to help them, not knowing his precious Mary is the one they’re after. All the while, Mary advises Benny on how best to find the killer. Even going so far as suggesting innocent people and volunteering to ‘take care of them.’
None of this ever leads to anything though. The showdown between Mary and Benny isn’t over her lying or her causing all this strife between the families. It’s over how she wants to leave and raise Danny. The whole Uncle story line is never actually resolved. Instead, we’re forced to watch melodrama between Mary and Danny that barely reaches the level of humdrum.
Danny Glover as Benny the crime boss is inspired casting. His gentle demeanor belying a sinister and cunning mind is one of the joys of Proud Mary. The scenes between Benny and Mary are some of the best of the movie. There’s a spark of intensity as the two share complex and often conflicting emotions.
Henson seems game, more so than Proud Mary, or the director Babak Najafi. Even when she is forced to say dialogue, unbelievable even by Hollywood or genre standards, she sells it. She carries her Mary with a conviction over an underlying sense of doubt as she is forced to re-evaluate her choices. One of the great disappointments of Proud Mary is how often she is let down by the script and the direction.
Najafi has no sense of what Proud Mary is or wants to be. Scenes seem to be edited without any sense of rhythm or mood. Proud Mary is punctuated with either covers or songs inspired by Blaxploitation staples, but somehow they never affect the mood. Even the action scenes, of which Proud Mary sports a grand total of two, seem deflated.
Still, deflated though they may be, they are actually the best choreographed and put together aspect of Proud Mary. When Mary infiltrates a rival gangster’s house, the movie almost comes alive. Tom (Billy Brown), Benny’s son and her ex-lover, goes along with her. The scene hints at the force of nature Mary can be. It’s by no means great action, but it is leaps and bound better than anything the movie has done before so it’s justifiably noteworthy.
Mary’s action sets the whole movie into motion, but it is never really resolved or explored. Everything about Proud Mary is tied to her relationship with Danny. All other plot elements and details are left to the winds or covered up by characters not worried about the impending gang war but bothered by Mary wanting to leave and raise a child.
One could argue the notion of a woman wanting to quit her job and raise a child could be subversive. Even if Proud Mary is trying to make that statement, it still doesn’t explain the lackluster editing, non-existent tone, and hair pulling-ly bad dialogue. In other words, it’s no excuse for having so many good and interesting things going for it, only for it to be so boring.