Movie Review: The Curious Case of "Proud Mary"

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Proud Mary is a sequel to a movie we never saw. It expects us to have a certain level of knowledge about its’ characters that could only be known by having met them before. Writers John Stuart Newman, Christian Swegal, and Steve Antin expect us to care and buy into their script in a way that they don’t earn nor attempt to construct. Yet since we’ve never seen the prequel to this film, we’re left with the work of three clearly inexperienced writers (check their imdb creds) whose rushed script was passed through the Screen Gems studio hierarchy and green-lit without a thorough analyzation of the work. A vehicle for female protagonists like this doesn’t come along very often, especially for African American women. We deserved better than a hooptie.

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Taraji P. Henson is Mary, a hit woman working for an organized crime family in Boston led by Benny (Danny Glover) and his eagerly “waiting in the wings for the throne” son Tom (Billy Brown). After sparing a kid named Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) from a hit she clearly should have done more research on, we find her keeping tabs on the boy one year later out of the immense guilt of leaving him orphaned. Poor Danny is now a runner for Uncle (Xander Berkeley). He’s physically and verbally abused by Uncle and struggling to find food. So Mary takes Danny in but is sure to omit the small detail of killing his father. 

Out of her love for Danny, Mary decides to defend him by confronting Uncle. When this results in Uncle’s death, the white crime family (last names aren’t given) wants blood and the black crime family has to serve someone to them in order not to start a war. If I stopped here and said that Mary serves up someone in her stead to covers her tracks and has to keep the lie going, this would be the premise for a good violence begets violence and covering a lie with a lie never ends well type of film. Instead, we get the one last kill to get out of the game completely storyline, which mushrooms into a kill everyone to get out story. In fact, the entire film feels like a convergence of different crime tale stereotypes we’ve seen before to get to the closing credits. It even boasts of dialogue like “Wake up! He was never gonna let you out!” or “if it weren’t for this family you’d still be a guttersnipe”. 

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The chemistry in the relationships within the film is lacking or forced. The driving relationship between Mary and Danny has sparks of realness mixed with moments of on-screen mothering that would make Madea proud. There’s a strong theme of the one time romance between Mary and Tom, but even those scenes that bring up their past love are cringeworthy. Everywhere you turn, there’s no escaping the underwritten and underdeveloped characters that have to hit certain beats to make this film a 90-minute feature.

Director Babak Najafi understands how to structure an action sequence. Don’t let this film fool you. He’s done it on the larger $60,000,000 London Has Fallen. Yet, in this film, he can’t quite figure out how to set up his shots in such a way that we can have a frame of reference for our space and location within the action scenes. Cliched shots of Mary with a gun in both hands firing every direction in a stairwell, sliding on her knees and shooting down human targets, or firing out of the window of a bullet-ridden car are all there! We’re just missing the proper orientation of how it all visually works together.

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Outside of the terrible screenplay, direction, and editing, the film was executive produced by Henson herself. I’ve seen her elevate a screenplay with her talent alone in a film like From The Rough, but here it’s not enough. Which leads me to point at the elephant in the room. Are black female action leads so uncommon in Hollywood that a film like Proud Mary can get green-lit with hacks for writers, a director who is asleep at the wheel and an attached Academy Award Nominated African-American star in the producer chair who closes her eyes to the flaws in order to get the film made? What am I missing? Female action stars are rare, and black female action stars are unicorns. So why wasn’t more care taken in making this film? Why not create an iconic character that we’ll want to see again? I can only come up with desperation to fill a gap and see a character like this on the big screen. 

If numbers don’t lie, then the fact that Proud Mary has virtually made it’s budget of $14,000,000 back in under two weeks since its release and the fact that it was narrowly beaten out by The Commuter (which had double its budget and Liam “particular set of box office skills” Neeson starring in it) in its’ opening weekend says a lot. To me, it says that there is a market out there for this type of film with people ready to support it. The film didn’t get a huge marketing push like last year’s Atomic Blonde or the upcoming Tomb Raider. So the duckets were earned on this one. Yet, it goes back to the age-old debate and double-edged sword of backing a film like Proud Mary with your dollars. Do you do it to tell the industry we want to see action films like this with a black female lead or withhold your hard earned cash to say we demand better?

I backed the film with my money even though I was hearing bad things on social media channels because I want to see minority women as action stars on the big screen. I sat through the film on the edge of my seat, not because of the white-knuckle action, but because I couldn’t wait to get out of there. But I showed up and gave the film a fair shot. What you do is up to you, but our daughters, wives, and mothers deserve to see more representation of themselves on the big screen as action stars that are better than this! Perhaps it will take a Patty Jenkins-esque scenario in which the powers that be empower a female director who actually cares about the story to take the reins. Maybe Taraji should handle the screenplay, producing and direction next time. Maybe. Whatever it is, Proud Mary is the poster child of what not to do in the future and it saddens me to say that! 

Rating: F

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Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.