Updated: Feb 5, 2020
Proud Mary is an action drama with more drama than action. Empire’s Taraji P. Henson stars as Mary, a hired gun for gangster Benny (Danny Glover). In the film’s opening scene, Mary carries out a hit on someone who owes Benny money. One year later, Mary catches up with her victim’s son, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), who was in the next room when Mary killed his father. Perhaps feeling guilty, Mary helps Danny escape from the clutches of a drug dealer, Uncle (The Walking Dead’s Xander Berkeley) he is in debt to. Her way of doing this sets off a gang war that comprises the majority of the story.
I give a lot of credit to screenwriters John Stuart Newman, Christian Swegal and Steve Antin and director Babak Najafi (who made the 2016 action sequel London Has Fallen) for actually allowing Henson to play the character. She is not just the hero of an action movie; Mary has hopes, dreams and fears of her own. She clearly had a life before the movie started and her past informs a lot of her actions. Since there is not much in the way of plot, and none of the other actors are given much to do with their characters, Henson really has to carry the movie. And she does. Though Proud Mary plays like a best of reel for movies of this type, Henson gives it her all and makes it better than it really deserves.
Her feelings toward Danny and her motives for risking everything for him are pretty much taken for granted by the screenplay. I think I understood it by the end (beyond the obvious, and clichéd, “woman feels maternal and takes in troubled youth” angle), but Henson imbues their scenes with an emotion that she pretty much generates out of thin air. She tries to do the same thing with her relationship with Benny’s son, her ex-lover Tom (Billy Brown from ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder). But his character moves at the whim of the story, so she can only do so much. Regardless, she does her best to turn Mary into a three-dimensional character. It is a really impressive performance and made me want to see her play Mary again in a movie that gives her more to do.
Though the trailers make this look like a full-fledged action movie. Proud Mary (84 minutes without the end credits) does not have much in the way of action. There are moments here and there, but it does not cut loose until the climax. Thankfully, the climactic action scene lets Henson unleash her full badassery, and it is pretty cool. More of that could only have been a positive.
Proud Mary has two things going for it: its brevity and its star. It has a weak story and very thin characterizations, but Taraji P. Henson rises up and makes it watchable. I cannot really recommend Proud Mary, but it is worth a look just to see Henson in action. We already knew she could act, but here she shows that, not only can she carry a movie, she can be an action star. I just hope she gets a better screenplay next time.
2½ out of 5
Taraji P. Henson as Mary
Jahi Di’Allo Winston as Danny
Billy Brown as Tom
Danny Glover as Benny
Xander Berkeley as Uncle
Rade Serbedzija as Luka
Directed by Babak Najafi
Screenplay by John Stuart Newman, Christian Swegal and Steve Antin