Director: Babak Najafi
Writers: John S. Newman, Christian Swegal, Steve Antin
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Billy Brown, Danny Glover, Neal McDonough, Xander Berkeley, Margaret Avery
Genre: Action, Thriller
I’m told there are better ways to start this year off. Granted, the ambition, at least as it was initially presented to us, is charming enough. Supposedly, what we were being given in Proud Mary is essentially a love letter to the blaxploitation films of the 70s with some remarkably effective star talent. Those films have never really been my cup of tea since they struck me as being almost all style and little to no substance beyond the surface. Having said that, I was looking forward to this particular outing with middling interest for two main reasons. 1.) I was wondering what those for whom such work was their cup of tea had to say about the final product and 2.) I was genuinely hoping that with the aid of time and reflection, one would find a way to infuse that cult classic genre with some substance along with the style. Well, let’s have a look…
Violence/Scary Images: Tons of shoot-outs, a few CGI-looking blood spatters, occasional wounds. Most of the violence isn’t extreme, but there’s one scene of torture in which a nail gun is used on a captive’s feet and hands (it’s not particularly graphic–no blood, but lots of screaming). The violence doesn’t have very much emotional impact, except for one instance of a kid being hit hard by an adult.
Language/Crude Humor: Frequent profanity.
Sexual Content: Some mild adult caressing.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Drugs are dealt but not shown being used.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Themes: A criminal underbelly setting.
Positive Content: Taking responsibility for your actions is somewhat demonstrated by Mary’s maternal instincts toward the child she orphaned on a job. But she also kills lots of people along the way, and violence is used as the prime means of conflict resolution, so it’s more negative than positive overall.
You could argue that there’s empowerment to be seen in Mary’s break from the mob–but she’s an assassin, and she accomplishes her escape by killing everybody, everywhere in this particular mob, as well as another one. Most of the main characters are people of color.
Happy New Year, dear reader.
I’ve said previously that it is particularly injurious to the integrity and charm of a story if it seems to be made out of obligation rather than inspiration. Uninspired art is just as bad–if not worse–than no art at all. After all, if those involved in the production of the work can’t be bothered to care about what they have produced, then why should anyone else?
Granted, there have been many examples of artworks that are held with flaccid disregard (and sometimes even outright contempt) by their authors but have been held with enormous gratitude by the masses. Usually, though, the author had at least a significant reverence for the work while in the midst of making it. Alan Moore may today have little to no love for The Killing Joke these days as his commentary seems to suggest even though it is widely seen as one of the most pivotal comic stories written in the latter half of the last century. The seemingly inexplicable devotion among fans to the 1986 release of Transformers: The Movie, a half-baked animated film that was made for no other reason but to sell action figures, is another popular example of this odd phenomenon of discord between the audience and the authors.
With that said, after the credits started rolling for Proud Mary, I was expecting a similar turn of events in the reactions from the public. Based on the trailers and other advertisements, it’s clear that we were being led to believe that this action thriller turn directed by Babak Najafi (London Has Fallen) would be nothing short of a feature-length love letter to the cult classic genre of “blaxploitation” that found its birth and popularity in the 70s. If the post-hippie culture flavor of the posters and wah-wah guitars featured in the opening sequence don’t set the mood for what to expect, I doubt anything else will. Sadly, what plays out beyond that is not only what could be considered grounds for false advertisement, but pitifully middling tripe as well.
Title character Mary (Taraji P. Henson) is initially meant to be taken as a successful hitwoman who, within five minutes of the film, has a hit that goes horribly awry, leaving a young boy in her hometown of Boston orphaned. This is where I found my first issues with this film. One of the first lessons that anyone learns when studying creative writing is the principle of “Show; Don’t Tell.” Clearly, the filmmakers want us to see Mary as this highly capable professional killer with a laundry list of successful marks. How are we to take her in that serious tone when the very first thing we see her do is botch what was supposed to be a clean job?
Furthermore, what follows after this mishap seems to systematically undo any and all sense of confidence and competence that Mary could conceivably have. Not too surprisingly, any sense of confidence and competence that the film could have as a whole also seems to peter out alongside its title character. Again and again, we see Mary try to cover up her foul-ups with more foul-ups that could have been avoided with the cool head and calm demeanor that one should expect from such a seasoned assassin.
The foul-ups and fallouts that Mary commits and initiates carry themselves in the most unassuming and predictable manner possible. For every mistake Mary makes in service to her Boston crime boss Benny (a regrettably lethargic Danny Glover), she makes a few more mistakes that leave men–innocent and guilty alike–dead in her wake. Far be it from me to suggest that this amounts to an at least enjoyable action movie romp. The miserably butchered and sloppy editing both in and out of the purview of bullets and car chases make the whole affair not only an exposition-laden slog but an incoherently cobbled-together slog.
Even in the climax when Mary has the boy she orphaned and is now caring for out of guilt and maternal instinct (Jahi Di’Allo) is kidnapped and held hostage, the one-woman-army shootout conducted has little if anything in the way of genuine stakes, danger, or consequence about it. Major characters are killed off with no pathos to be found anywhere. And no, the blaring soundtrack selection of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s titular number resounding over both the ultimate showdown and the end credits doesn’t make it any more exciting.
That’s the other major failure of this venture. Those simply looking not so much for an engaging and rewarding plot or character experience may still be holding out a candle to simply be enthralled by the aesthetic appeal of blaxploitation-era cinema will also find themselves horribly underserved. Proud Mary has next to nothing of the pizazz, finesse, swagger, or visceral satisfaction that is emblematic of what is supposedly its inspiration. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with such works as Shaft and Foxy Brown knows perfectly well that a careful and deliberate selection of funk and soul needle drops is what sells the ambiance of the experience. If the film does nothing else, it should at least service in this way. Alas, even there, Proud Mary makes for a poor meal.
If you’re looking for a decent crime thriller with a nearly all-black cast, dear reader, I strongly recommend J.D. Dillard’s Sleight as an alternative. There you will find actually winsome characters who engage in palpable stakes and have remarkable development that feels earned and sincere. By contrast, if you’ve ever seen a “professional killer’s redemption story” before, you’ve seen Proud Mary a dozen times in a dozen better ways.
+ Ensemble cast that shows up for work
- Generic plot - Complete lack of surprise - Painfully uninspired - Pathetically predictable - Wasteful - Horrible editing
The Bottom Line
A John Wick fanfilm by way of Quentin Tarantino but lacking the style or substance of not only either of those auteurs but also of its ostensible spiritual successor of the blaxploitation films.