Skilled in both caustic comebacks and moist-eyed expressions of overwhelming inner conflict, Taraji P. Henson is a dynamic actress. She gamely takes up the mantle of pioneering blaxploitation star Pam Grier in Proud Mary, playing a hitwoman trying to escape the adopted “family” that has forced her into a life of indentured servitude under gang leader/twisted father figure Benny (Danny Glover). Dressed head-to-toe in black denim and leather, her hair pulled back into an artfully messy ponytail, Henson is thrilling to watch as she fells rival gangsters and their flunkies with precision judo moves and blunt, execution-style gunshots to the head. (Her style isn’t flashy, but it is forceful.) She’s a compelling leading woman, all in all. Too bad she’s stuck in such an incompetently directed mess of a movie.
The basic plot of Proud Mary echoes John Cassavetes’ 1980 crime thriller Gloria: The latter stars Gena Rowlands as a former gang associate who goes on the run with a little boy being hunted by the mob, and the former stars Henson as Mary, the aforementioned hit woman, who takes in 12-year-old Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) after discovering him passed out in an alley with drugs and a gun in his backpack. Danny’s indentured servitude isn’t so different from Mary’s, working as he does for cartoonish Russian mobster Uncle (Xander Berkeley) to pay off the debt incurred when Uncle took in Danny after both his parents and grandmother died. Shortly after picking up the boy, Mary attempts to intimidate Uncle into releasing Danny from his employ. That confrontation goes quickly, violently sideways, sparking a gang war that would mean death for Mary if anyone found out she started it. Oh, and she killed Danny’s father, too, so it’s her fault that he ended up on the streets in the first place.
It’s a complicated dilemma that isn’t really addressed in any meaningful way. The rough edges of Mary’s moral conflict are sanded down in a hail of automatic gunfire and platitudes about maternal instinct, her quest for freedom and redemption drowned out by a wholly misplaced, bombastic spy-movie score that ca-chunks and brooooomps through the gaps between milquetoast covers of classic soul and R&B numbers. Aside from the fact that there just aren’t that many black action heroines to go around—making the comparison between Henson and Grier, Tamara Dobson, et al inevitable—the advertising for Proud Mary boldly drew parallels between the film and its ’70s blaxploitation foremothers. That promise carries through to the highly stylized, orange-and-yellow retro graphics that overlay the opening credits, after which the ’70s influence is taken out back and drowned in a gunmetal-gray vat of contemporary action-movie clichés.
That’s presumably due to the influence of director Babak Najafi, who brings much of the same pointless stylistic overkill to Proud Mary as he did to his last film, London Has Fallen. They were bad enough before, but in the context of a gritty crime story set in the world of street-level drug dealers and enforcers in Boston, flourishes like low-angle shots of ridiculously expensive cars (the grill of Mary’s Maserati gets more screen time than some supporting characters) and the continually swooping Steadicam aren’t just silly, they’re jarringly mismatched with the subject matter. It’s a problem compounded by the rapid, sloppy editing; by the third vertigo-inducing dialogue scene, viewers will be left longing for a simple, static two-shot. Henson’s both-feet-on-the-ground performance tries to rein in the chaos, but the simple fact is that she—and the moviegoers, many of them people of color, who will come out to see this film—deserve much better support behind the camera.