Stop me if this sounds familiar. A hired gun is looking to get out of the game. She kills the wrong person. She finds herself in a relationship that adds empathy to a job that requires apathy. Based on circumstances outside of her control, her own crew turns against her. Now on her own, she has to leave a trail of bodies behind if she wants to get out and make a better life for herself.
Yeah, Proud Mary is that movie. Taraji P. Henson plays Mary, a hitwoman who has been following a kid, a young boy named Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) whose father she assassinated a year earlier. She works for a nondescript crime organization that is rivaled by another nondescript crime organization, who is led (I presume) by a man named Uncle (Xander Berkeley).
When Mary kills Uncle—Uncle has been sending Danny out on drug deals and abusing him—she has to protect Danny while also watching her own back, covering her tracks and executing loose ends.
It’s all endlessly conventional. Not only this, but the crime world that Proud Mary sets out to create is amorphous and uninteresting. Sure, Danny Glover plays Mary’s boss and one-time father figure, and he does so with his usual level of gravitas. But there’s no telling which crime group has power over which, or what Mary’s reputation is.
In Die Hard, John McClane is just a New York cop in an unlucky situation. John Wick was a known boogeyman before he retired. A good action movie protagonist has a personality and a backstory. Henson gives Mary a personality, and a surprising amount of empathy, but her character is never established in this world. We know Mary is established and well-liked by her employers. But a character like John Wick becomes a myth, because there is a history there that we hear glimpses of.
Do rivals fear Mary? Is Mary high up in her own organization? How long has she been working this racket? It isn’t the job of a film to paint an entire backstory for its protagonist—too much backstory can be a problem of its own—but knowing nothing about Mary or the world she is living in causes Proud Mary to start off on a messy foot.
And it never cleans that muck off its boot. The formal elements of the film are never particularly engaging. The score and the soundtrack can be loud, but it never aids in the action. The camera work isn’t enlightening. And the editing. Oh, the editing.
There are things in film editing known as J-cuts and L-cuts. These edits cut between setups while a character’s dialogue is occurring. This is done to avoid cutting on the silence between dialogue, where the edit tends to come off as jarring. Now, cutting on a change of speaker can be done and done to good effect; J- and L-cuts are not requirements of quality editing.
But when your film is an action film that cuts every second with the intent being sleek, smooth, and dynamic scenes, then using an abundance of edit points that occur on speaker changes make simple dialogue scenes look like a distracting mess.
As for the positives. Taraji P. Henson leads the film admirably. She certainly has the chops to lead an action movie; that action movie just needs better writing to bolster her performance. Winston and Glover add to this cast. The three of them give emotion and energy to a film that otherwise has little to go on.
There is a relationship between Henson and Winston’s characters that is surprisingly heartfelt. It isn’t narratively anything novel, but the two actors sell the bond really well. Their scenes together give the film a purpose that is impossible to find in the inert action sequences that build to an obvious climax.
Proud Mary is not an unwatchable film. There is enough here in the performances and central relationship (and short runtime) that keep the film from being entirely tired. But the nagging technical issues and glaringly conventional storytelling at work allows this film to be utterly forgettable.
Proud Mary: C