Proud Mary probably just recently popped up on your radar, if it’s on there at all. For a variety of reasons, Sony hasn’t put nearly the marketing budget behind this movie that it deserves. This fun action flick makes good use of Taraji P. Henson’s magnetic star power while showing off a new side of her, that of an unabashed action hero.
Henson (Hidden Figures, Empire) stars as Mary, a hitwoman who finds herself caring for Danny (newcomer Jahi Di’Allo Winston), a young boy with a connection to her past, which puts her at odds with her adoptive crime family as her steps to protect the boy threatens to plunge Boston into an all-out gang war.
Of course Mary’s allegiance is more complicated than it first appears. Danny Glover (of Danny Glover fame) plays Benny, a suspiciously charming man who took her in when she was young and running away from her abusive stepfather, and Billy Brown (Sons of Anarchy, How to Get Away with Murder) plays her gorgeous ex Tom (and Glover’s son/eager lieutenant) who isn’t quite ready to let Mary go just yet. This allegiance, both professional and personal, changes the game for Mary when compared to other action movies about hired guns. Mary isn’t a lone wolf, beholden only to the money, her skills, and the secrets she holds. She has obligations to the crime family that took her in as a young woman, and it’s the falling dominoes of Boston’s organized crime world that propel the story forward, forcing Mary to act.
It’s a credit to the writing that Mary’s love life is only relevant to the story insofar as it complicates her ability to achieve her goals. Multiple people ask if she wants to leave the family business because of Tom, a notion she swats away with impatience. Mary is not the kind of woman to let a relationship dictate her choices.
Henson and Jahi Di’Allo Winston have great chemistry, which makes their easy rapport and near-instant camaraderie ring true. Unfortunately it’s a bit tough to watch Danny Glover feel a bit like he’s phoning it in, and it doesn’t help that he’s saddled with quite a few clunky lines. The 90-minute runtime should make make the movie fly by, but there are several places where the pace grinds slow enough for the audience (even an enthusiastic one like mine) to check their collective watch.
While I’m sure we’ll see a lot of Atomic Blonde comparisons, the pace and combat styles are radically different, though equally strong, fun soundtracks figure largely in both. Proud Mary is more reminiscent of The Equalizer, another Boston-based action flick about a hitman with a heart of gold taking on the world to protect a troubled young person. Mary lacks those gross-out moments of violence that Equalizer became famous for, with it’s climactic kill-everyone-with-literally-anything-in-Home-Depot ethos. Mary, on the other hand, is a smooth killer with style and a conscience, cut from the same cloth as 1970s blaxploitation characters. This link is made explicit by a fantastic intro so retro that I genuinely wondered what decade the movie would occupy.
The film is obviously a vehicle for Taraji P. Henson’s career, to show off her versatility while simultaneously playing into so much of what makes her electric on any screen, big or small. She rattles off quite a few one-liners while caring for Danny, walking the fine line between joking and ripshit the way only a mother can. She also delivers some scathing lines to the many men who populate her underworld that seem made for a tribute video, or at least a t-shirt. There are certainly shades of Cookie here – both characters are savvy, talented, and fiercely loyal until you cross them. But Mary is her own character, and a winning one.
Speaking of the men of Mary’s world, this movie really only stars one other woman besides Henson, and she appears in a very brief scene with only a couple of lines. It probably technically passes the Bechdel Test (I think Mary wishes her happy birthday?) but it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.
One of my few complaints, other than some clunky parts of the script, is that Henson only has a few opportunities to show off her action chops. When she does, though, it’s an absolute blast. Much of the sluggish script feels designed to create a situation in which there is only one way for the story to end well: our hero has to kill everyone. And let’s just say that win, lose, or draw, Mary makes ample use of the small armory she keeps in her walk-in closet.
If you’re going to tell a story about a hitwoman, she needs to bring the goods. A couple of highlights are when Mary makes use of her driving gloves from the opening sequence and Tokyo Drifts her car (and then some), and the two separate occasions when she slides across the floor, gun drawn. Beautiful cars (and some Chevys, for some reason) purr and hum throughout, adding to the luxurious feel of Mary’s world. The only thing gritty about this flick is Mary and Danny’s attitudes when someone pisses them off.
While it’s not perfect, Proud Mary is a lot of fun during this gloomy January slump. Taraji P. Henson shines, giving Hollywood plenty of reason to seek her out for future shoot ‘em up roles, and hopefully with a better script and budget for publicity. With the number of women-fronted action flicks on their way, I hope we see this side of Henson again soon.