Proud Mary is an entertaining enough thriller with some flare from director Babak Najafi, but works best as Taraji P. Henson's action vehicle.
Proud Mary is the latest movie following a leading character with a particular set of skills who's essentially a one-man army - or, in this case, a one-woman army. Films like John Wick, its sequel John Wick: Chapter 2, and The Commuter all put their own spin on this kind of action movie in recent years, with 2017's Atomic Blonde set within this genre as well, albeit with a backdrop of '80s espionage and a female lead. Proud Mary is very much a one-man army brand of action film, but it's set in modern day Boston with a black female lead. Shifting the focus to a female hero helps to distinguish Proud Mary from the other films included in the genre that have been released in recent years. Proud Mary is an entertaining enough thriller with some flare from director Babak Najafi, but works best as Taraji P. Henson's action vehicle.
When viewers first meet Mary (Henson), she is a cool, calm, and collected hitwoman working for an organized crime family in Boston, Massachusetts. However, when a hit turns out to be not what she expected, everything changes for Mary. As a result, the young boy Danny (Jahi Di'Allo Winston) comes into her life, but he works for a rival organization under a man named Uncle (Xander Berkeley). Since Mary has developed a soft spot for Danny, she works to get him out of the organization to which he belongs, and away from Uncle.
Unfortunately, Mary's heroic deed sets into motion a series of events that eventually lead to all-out war between the two rival crime families. Meanwhile, Mary's surrogate father and the head of the crime family she works for, Benny (Danny Glover), attempts to make peace. His son and Mary's ex-boyfriend, Tom (Billy Brown), doesn't like the way Benny plans to handle the situation, and his former relationship with Mary makes the situation even more complicated than it already was. However, with Mary's priorities having realigned in a way that isn't compatible with Tom, let alone the organized crime family for which she works, it's up to her and her alone to make sure she and Danny are able to escape safely - but it's unclear if Mary's skills and knowledge will be enough.
Proud Mary is directed by Iranian-Swedish filmmaker Babak Najafi, who has some experience with one-many army types of action films. He helmed London Has Fallen, the 2016 sequel to Gerard Butler's own one-man army action thriller Olympus Has Fallen. Najafi's experience with this brand of action pays off with decent action set pieces, but they're unfortunately forgettable. Many of the fight sequences feel like an afterthought to the character development. This means the scenes focused on Mary and the other characters in the film are sharper, but it comes at the expense of any real spectacle. It isn't until the climactic battle of Proud Mary that the action truly comes alive, and it's here where Henson's stunt work shines. The sequence is strengthened by using the film's titular song, "Proud Mary" - but Tina Turner's version, of course.
In terms of the movie's script, it was penned by John Stewart Newman (Dirty Work, Get Shorty), Christian Swegal (Stasis), and Steven Antin (Burlesque, Chasing Papi) based on a story by Newman and Swegal. Relative newcomers Newman and Swegal offer up a compelling enough story for Proud Mary, which was likely bolstered by Antin's help. Centering Henson's Mary with a story that's recognizable within the one-man army lexicon allows it to be accessible to all viewers (read: men wary of a female-led action flick), but gives the character a stronger emotional arc that is typical of the genre. Unfortunately, the script seems to know what the movie is really about - Henson's Mary - and tends to rush past important plot beats. The story is simple enough that it doesn't matter much, but it's a weakness that could have been corrected in pre-production. Still, while the story is fine, the film's strength isn't in its script.
Rather, the star of Proud Mary is Mary herself, with Henson doing much of the heavy lifting in the film. She is kinetic when the action allows her to be, and has a great deal of chemistry with each of her scene partners. The most compelling dynamic of the film is between Mary and the young boy in her care, Danny, as she takes on a surrogate mother role. There is a sweetness to Henson and Winston's interactions, which, juxtaposed with the darkness of both their characters' lives of crime, makes their relationship fascinating. Further, Brown and Glover are serviceable in Proud Mary, working well with what they're given, which isn't much, and bounce well off of Henson. Still, though Proud Mary is at times frustratingly a one-woman vehicle, insofar as none of the other characters are given much depth, Henson does shine.
Proud Mary is a decent enough action thriller, with a compelling - if rushed - story, that is undoubtedly elevated by Henson's performance. Perhaps the biggest part of Proud Mary working against the film, though, is its marketing. Despite Henson's star power, especially in recent years with hits like Empire and Hidden Figures, Proud Mary received one trailer, a handful of TV spots, some push on social media sites, and little else in terms of marketing. So, while Proud Mary will undoubtedly appeal to typical action viewers, not to mention fans of Henson's, it's difficult to say whether casual audiences are aware the film is even being released.
Proud Mary isn't the most original or stylistic entry in the one-man army genre of action thrillers, but it works much better as a character drama than many films in the lexicon. Truly, with a stronger script and better composed (and more memorable) action sequences, Proud Mary could have been much improved if all elements of the film had matched Henson's performance. As it is, Proud Mary works largely because of Henson's dedication to the role and the project - and she offers a compelling and enjoyable performance - but the movie drops the ball in almost all other aspects.
Proud Mary is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 89 minutes long and rated R for violence.
Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments!