Dimly lit and slackly made, Proud Mary features Taraji P. Henson as a chill mob assassin who puts on lipstick and thigh-high boots to carry out her brutal assignments, but finds her inner nurturing mom after wasting a 13-year-old boy’s dad and getting an attack of the sads. It turns out that Henson’s Mary lost her parents at an early age and was essentially raised by a gang boss named Benny (Danny Glover), who trained her in the arts of badassery. So the last thing she wanted was to make young Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) homeless, too. When the fatherless boy goes to work for a Fagin-esque Slav called Uncle (Xander Berkeley) who beats him bloody, Mary is compelled to intervene. “Danny belongs to me,” says Uncle. “Danny belongs to no one,” says ownership-averse Mary, driving home the point with a bullet to the brain. Alas, the Slavs interpret the killing as the start of a gang war and strike back at the puzzled but sanguine Benny. All heck breaks loose.
Much better thrillers have been made from much worse materials, but the Iranian-born director Babak Najafi has no evident clue how to compose a simple dialogue, let alone a shoot-out with multiple moving parts. You get soft puffs of blood and flying, interchangeable dummies. Najafi’s default camera position is waist-high looking up, which does the actors no favors, and he can’t find a rhythm in the scenes between Henson and Winston. (You know what you’re supposed to feel, but you have to meet the movie more than halfway — four-fifths, maybe.) When Mary installs Danny in her luxe warehouse apartment and says, “Go anywhere but my bedroom,” does she really think he’s not going to slip into her room the instant she’s out the door and open her mysteriously unlocked high-tech weaponry cabinet? The people who made this movie should be treated for sleeping sickness.
You’d think a movie called Proud Mary would be sonically sensational, but the busy score is so ineffectual that it might as well be coming from the next multiplex screen over, while the wacka-wacka blaxploitation-era songs (or covers thereof) only make the film itself feel more rhythmless. The car companies that paid for product placements could justly ask for their money back.
Glover has a grave, saturnine presence, though something is off with his voice — it’s as if he’d been dubbed by a Glover replicant. Billy Brown definitely has something as Glover’s son and Mary’s ex-lover: He manages to smolder in a vacuum, no small feat. As for Henson, she holds her pedestal but doesn’t do much on top of it. Proud Mary doesn’t play up the retro but potentially amusing joke at its center: Mary is angry not because men think she’s an implausible warrior, but an implausible mother.
I should say, in fairness, that the matinee audience (Proud Mary wasn’t screened in advance for critics) seemed to like the movie well enough. The elderly ladies in back of me particularly enjoyed Mary’s coup de grâce final bullets: “That’s right, that’s right — one in the head,” said one. “That’s what she always does,” said another. “Always the last one like that.” The sadistic relish of shitty, grade-C grind-house movies seems finally to have bridged the age and gender gap.