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Proud Mary

dir. Babak Najafi
reviewed by Dakota Drobnicki

There’s a minor editing mishap in this movie that is symbolic of how sloppily crafted it is. To kick the third act into high gear, Mary (Taraji P. Henson, who also serves as the film’s executive producer) drives off to reclaim Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) from her ex-boyfriend Tom (Billy Brown), with Tina Turner’s version of “Proud Mary” blaring on the soundtrack. She kicks off an action sequence where she shoots a bunch of guys in the head, not too different from any of the action sequences that preceded it.

The action isn’t edited to the rhythm of the song like the invigorating action in Baby Driver, but that was a beautiful novelty— I wasn’t expecting it here. That being said, it wouldn’t be too much to expect a bombastic usage of the song in what’s supposed to be the movie’s central action sequence, especially when it seems to be the reason this movie has its title. Instead, the scene ends with the song carelessly low in the mix, sucking out all of the dramatic value the song brought to the film in the process. It’s the little things that show how much they care.

Proud Mary follows Mary, who never seems to be particularly proud, as she becomes a motherly figure for a young kid named Danny. A year earlier, she had assassinated his bookie father without realizing he was in the picture, and left him to become an orphaned drug runner for the abusive Uncle (Xander Berkeley). Upon discovering the marks of Uncle’s abuse across Danny’s back, Mary immediately goes to kill Uncle in his office, setting off a war between his gang and that of her boss Benny (Danny Glover). A lot of people get shot, often without the slightest bit of dramatic impact or impressive action choreography.

It isn’t inherently a terrible thing to note that this movie is built on a paper-thin premise. One of my favorite movies of all time, Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination, seems to be built around the central question of “What if Alien suddenly turned into a James Bond-type movie?”, whereas this one simply asks me to imagine Taraji P. Henson as a badass assassin.

Henson has the acting chops to pull off what should be a strong character of this type— she did whoop Idris Elba’s ass in No Good Deed, after all— but not necessarily the credentials that make an interesting action hero. If this movie’s any indication, there’s a reason you don’t see her rolling some bones in the Fast & Furious franchise or carving out an action movie niche like she’s Cynthia Rothrock. The action never strays from shooting people in the face or chest, filmed in as basic of a manner as possible. Like come on, at least throw in Scott Adkins or someone to do some martial arts moves with Henson. Add a little variety.

Instead, the movie seems to hope that its bland action scenes will be counterbalanced by the chemistry between Mary and Danny. Mary develops into a mother figure for Danny, at first out of guilt before a real emotional connection to the boy kicks in. Does it? Well, at least it’s some kind of dynamic to keep the movie from becoming too boring. Their performances are actually solid, in contrast to the weird William Shatner-esque acting Danny Glover is doing whenever he’s on screen.

The rather basic emotional core they provide isn’t strong enough to overcome the movie’s sloppy construction. It isn’t just that the action scenes are crafted as soullessly as possible— the entire movie feels like it was held together with staples, so it’s full of holes. Scene transitions leave a feeling of whiplash, there’s a mirror shot where you can see Danny’s mouth not even remotely matching his dubbed-in dialogue, and of course, there’s the careless sound edting I mentioned above.

Unfortunately, the movie can’t even be entertainingly bad or have enough blatant goofs to be a fun experience. For a fitting example, anyone who’s ever seen Rudy Ray Moore’s blaxploitation classic Dolemite in its open-matted form has garnered some entertainment value from that boom mic that constantly shows up at the top of the screen. If you watch the movie in its intended widescreen format, the boom mic is gone, but the movie is still hilarious and action-packed enough to be enjoyable without it.

After I caught the editing goof with Danny in the mirror, I started paying closer attention to every other shot where light was reflected— off of cars, windows, other mirrors, what have you— to see if I could catch the camera crew or something. Mind you, the aforementioned example from Dolemite wasn’t a side effect of bad shot composition, but in any case, that’s what I was hoping for here. Sadly, this movie is too competently made to have any other fun accidents to spot.

People talk all kinds of trash about the director’s previous film London Has Fallen. If nothing else, that movie deserves credit for being a wild and balls-out modern attempt at emulating the Cannon Films formula. From the admittedly inspired marketing for this movie, you would think they were trying to make something in the vein of a Pam Grier movie from the 70s, but that seems to have been an afterthought to make the movie seem more interesting than it actually is. It can’t even keep up its soulful soundtrack for very long; most of the score is boring paint-by-numbers orchestral music that sounds like it was made in GarageBand.

If you’re a diehard enough fan of Taraji P. Henson that you need to go see this movie, you might as well— you’ll likely enjoy it anyway in spite of how boring it is. If, like me, you were drawn in by the marketing that tries to draw comparisons to Foxy Brown, you’ll probably feel not only disappointed but deceived. The only connective tissue it has to the classic 70s wave of blaxploitation is a mostly black cast, it doesn’t even try for the aesthetic, the spirit, or the social commentary many of those movies offered.