Whilst all the promotion material and a retro opening sequence promised a neo-blaxploitation action romp, Proud Mary never delivers on its potential. Rather than a homage to Foxy Brown (1974) and the like, director Babak Najafi gives an initial cursory nod to the black female-led films of the 70s, only to swiftly abandon this in favour of the clumsy tale of Mary (Taraji P Henson), a hitwoman with a heart.
Opening with The Temptations’ enjoyable but thematically irrelevant ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’, we see Mary getting glammed up and donning a blonde wig, then swiftly assassinating an anonymous bookie with a bullet to the head. In doing so, she leaves his son Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) orphaned. Plagued with guilt, she decides to keep tabs on the young boy. One year later, Danny is already alarmingly competent at doing the dirty work for the abusive drug dealing Uncle (Xander Berkeley).
Mary is eventually compelled to intervene and rescue Danny, killing Uncle and his vaguely Eastern European, trench-coat wearing henchmen in the process. This killing prompts a renewed turf war between the Russians and the Boston drug cartel Mary works for. Headed up by the seemingly gentle Benny (Danny Glover) and his alarmingly muscular son Tom (Billy Brown), Mary must keep Uncle’s murder and Danny’s existence a secret.
Unfortunately, the characters fall into exhausted and overdone tropes, which the film mistakes for characterisation. Mary’s interest in Danny is lazily presented as innate maternal affection, which infects their relationship with a cloying sentimentality. On top of that, the formulaic and generic dialogue hinders the talented ensemble. When Danny asks Mary about her past, she replies “Look kid, let’s just say it’s complicated”. Whilst the film does contain some good performances (particularly Henson and Glover), it is utterly uninterested in letting the audience see them. Forget the torture, murder and drugs: this is the true crime of the film.
The film’s relationship with violence is confused, inherently critical of the brutal world that forces both Mary and Danny to leave behind their childhoods far too young, whilst also expecting the viewer to enjoy the multiple extended shootouts as violence for violence’s sake. At no point does the film stop to wonder if any of the 50-something henchmen Mary kills in one long sequence also have children, because it is too busy enjoying the badassery of the moment.
This contradictory approach to embracing violence prevents the film embracing the more comedic aspects of the story, as it is unsure if they can be played for comedy. Scenes that have the potential for humour, such as when Mary scopes out an area for a kill under the guise of buying Danny a hotdog, are just presented, rather than played for laughs.
The editing is distractingly poor, cutting as frequently and randomly as an inexperienced vlogger. The bland and weakly choreographed action scenes feel more like expensive SNL spoofs than anything genuine. Worst of all, the dim lighting at points nearly obscures the actor’s features, suggesting genuine incompetence behind the camera.
Film reviewed at Cineworld, Edinburgh.
Image: Genevieve via Flickr