Proud Mary Review
|Writer(s)||John Stuart Newman, Christian Swegal|
|Release Date||January 12, 2018|
I’m probably better off describing what it isn’t. The marketing seems to have been selling a campy, retro-70s Blaxploitation homage, and it isn’t that. Not beyond the opening credits, anyway. And the fact that the film was basically hidden from critics and made extraordinarily difficult to see by its producer, Screen Gems, suggested it would be a blasphemous affront to cinema, but it isn’t that, either.
What Proud Mary is, really, is an almost-good low-budget actioner that stars a middle-aged Oscar-nominated black actress as a mob assassin. So, as far as novelty goes, I guess that’s fair enough.
Why was it made so difficult to see?
Good question. It’s not uncommon for genre films. But anticipation for Proud Mary was pretty high. It was heavily advertised beforehand and the decision to not screen for critics and to cancel several late-night showings seemed incredibly sudden. Some people of course took this to mean that the studio had buried the film on the basis of it being headlined by a black woman. I think that logic is dubious, but there you go. Either way it was an odd call. A slick, gunplay-heavy action film helmed by a major star seems like a pretty fiscally safe bet for January, but what do I know?
So, what’s it about?
Taraji P. Henson plays Mary, a trigger-woman for a Boston-based family crime syndicate run by Danny Glover – very much looking his age, I might add. In the first act she takes out a target before discovering that the victim had a ten-year-old son, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), she was unaware of. Feeling understandably guilty about making the kid an orphan, she starts keeping an eye on him as he’s put to work by a rival Russian mob, and eventually intervenes when he gets badly hurt. While trying to square his debts, she loses it and ends up taking out most of the Russkies, thus sparking a turf war for control of the city that her and the kid find themselves directly in the middle of.
That sounds a bit like –
The Equalizer, yeah. Middle-aged black star; creepy Russian mob; young, vulnerable slave kid; misplaced parental instinct. The Equalizer is slicker and better-crafted. But Proud Mary has the advantage of novelty and a greater emotional emphasis on the lead and her ward. If you liked one, you’ll probably like the other. I might as well knock off for lunch.
Doesn’t Proud Mary do anything to differentiate itself?
Not really, no. Thankfully it never sags to a point that Henson can’t hoist the whole thing back up to some kind of watchable level. She’s excellent in this, it must be said. And not purely because she helps the film meet some kind of perceived diversity quota. She’s good by any metric, especially in smaller, quieter moments. She can break down in the arms of a former lover and snap suddenly to her senses. She can argue back and forth with Danny; with comic timing, here, and with raw emotion, there. She can capture the weight of a moment like, say, the one in which she explains to Danny what to do in the event of her death. It’s not a showy, actorly performance. You have to be paying attention to notice the nuance. But that’s what acting is, isn’t it? Making a fiction lifelike – real. She does that, often effortlessly.
And yeah, she can **** people up when she needs to.
How is the action?
There’s an excellent climax, which is where the titular song is deployed. But it’s mostly workmanlike at best, and often hamstrung by odd stylistic choices – particularly in regards to lighting – and arrhythmic editing that takes the wind out of certain sequences. Held up against Atomic Blonde, for instance, or even the aforementioned The Equalizer, it’s pretty lacklustre.
So, did you like it?
Mostly. I certainly didn’t find it offensive, but I did wish it’d do certain things better or slightly differently. The film works towards the grand spectacle of Henson turning into the Terminator for Act 3, but it’s much more involving when it stops to interrogate the emotional relationships between the characters. Henson does such a good job of selling her guilty conscience and her conflicting allegiances that a longer, fuller film would almost certainly have been a better one, and it’s rare you’ll see me complaining that a film is too short.
It’s worth it for a committed leading performance and one or two fun action beats, but don’t expect anything you haven’t seen before. And don’t even expect to see even that particularly well. Honestly, the lighting is terrible.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.