The month of lowered standards continues with the Taraji P. Henson-led quasi-Blaxploitation action thriller, ‘Proud Mary’, directed by Babak Najafi. My most important takeaway from; the classic eponymous Tina Turner hit from 1970 (originally performed by Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969) does not play as the most alluring soundtrack for a shootout. But that’s the least of ‘Proud Mary’s’ problems, which plays as the extremely poor man’s version Luc Besson’s brilliant ‘94 thriller, ‘The Professional’.
Like ‘The Professional’, the murky world of crime, with its wolves and lambs, unites our two protagonists, Mary (Henson) and 12-year-old Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston). A year prior, Mary, the slick hitwoman of Boston crime family, had taken out Danny’s father, a bookie who owed the wrong people money. She did see Danny, who was too engulfed in a video game at the time to hear his father getting murdered, but I guess her maternal instincts kicked in (*cough cough* “no women, no kids”) and she flees, fighting back the tears. We are led to believe she essentially ruined Danny’s life and some guilt lingers, but the opportunity for redemption beckons.
In the present day, Danny is working for Uncle (Xander Berkeley), a member of a Russian crime family who uses kids to run drugs around town. Danny is now pretty much the hardened quantity and he has quickly understood that the gun is a firm bargaining chip. In an early scene, he handles himself well and puts some dealer who tries to stiff him in his place. But Danny is also basically a slave to Uncle, who acts like the foster parent from hell and is quick to subject him to horrid beatings. It is after one of such beatings that Mary finds Danny, with a bloodied head, passed out in an alley. She takes him home cleans him up and tries to sort out his situation with Uncle. The latter part does not go well. Mary ends up killing uncle and his goons after they threaten Danny, basically kicking of a turf war between the Russians and Mary’s crime family, headed by Benny (Danny Glover).
Beyond this, Mary is also having thoughts about leaving the life of crime behind. She wants to fully realise her innate maternal instincts plus there’s the obvious guilt underlying her relationship with Danny. So there is a lot going on, especially for a film with pace issues clocking under 90 minutes. But the screenplay never really articulates the key plot points with proper coherence. It also does not give its two leads, Henson especially, the materials needed to make their characters and their bond compelling. There is no proper sense of angst enveloping Mary, whose actions also threaten to rip her crime family apart and Danny just comes off as your regular kid who talks back a little too much. The idea of the physically and emotionally scarred kid is pretty much out of the window before the second act comes around.
The action credentials of ‘Proud Mary’ are also questionable at best. Mary, and her collection of multicoloured wigs, never convinces as a hardboiled killer and the action she engages in is quite limp – just your average shootouts or close quarters combat comprising of too many quick cuts, which are a marker of how poorly edited and paced this film is. Maybe it should have been aiming for more preposterous action, like the sequence towards the end where Mary bursts into a warehouse with her slick sports car and is welcomed with more machine gun fire than allied troops on D-Day. But, of course, the bullets decide they are allergic to her in true “impossible white man” fashion.
Even in the month of lowered standards, ‘Proud Mary’ is a disappointment. All it really needed to be was a fun ‘70s Blaxploitation homage, in line with the film’s striking poster and title sequence. The soundtrack is quite drab and it could have taken some lessons from ‘Brawl in Cell Block 99’. On the bright side, there are surprisingly little to no outright plot holes, save for the fact that we don’t see a single police officer despite the numerous shootouts and murders. Another question we can ask is why this film is called ‘Proud Mary’ when Sorry Mary or Guilty Mary would be fitting. Only one thing is certain, I have to see The Professional again. Besson’s classic will serve as the perfect palate cleanser.