Director: Babak Najafi
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Jahi Di'Allo Winston, Billy Brown, Danny Glover, Neal McDonough, Rade Serbedzija, Xander Berkeley, Margaret Avery
MPAA Rating: (for violence)
Running Time: 1:29
Release Date: 1/12/18
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 12, 2018
At the center of Proud Mary, there's a promising character—a professional assassin with a lot of love to give but who instead has been raised to kill for the mob boss who gave her a family when she needed one. She simply has never had an opportunity to show that softer, kinder side. An opportunity presents itself, ironically, during the course of her work, when she's tasked to kill a bookie who's in debt to that criminal organization.
A boy is in the target's apartment, which comes as a bit of a surprise to Mary (Taraji P. Henson), the assassin. She shows no hesitation in killing the target, simply telling him not to answer his ringing cellphone before shooting him in the head.
With the boy, though, there's never a moment of doubt. She does nothing. She simply watches the target's son for a little, playing a video game while wearing headphones, completely unaware of what has happened in the next room. Mary simply leaves him in peace, taking the kid's photo from a table.
There's nothing new about this character, who's first introduced in a routine sequence of her preparing for the job—showering, putting on makeup, zipping up some thigh-high boots, choosing a wig, selecting the correct weapon from the hidden arsenal in her closet. At first, she's the generic bad-ass killer, a type that's only slightly altered in the movie's opening scenes by the fact that she's a woman (Even then, this isn't much of a change, since we've seen plenty of ass-kicking women in recent years). What screenwriters Steve Antin, John Stuart Newman, and Christian Swegal eventually arrive at, though, is a character who realizes what she has lost in the process of becoming a cold-blooded killer.
Henson's performance is key here, since she has to convince us that Mary does not exist as two separate entities. In other words, she doesn't transform into a mother figure for Danny (Jahi Di'Allo Winston), the boy whom she made an orphan by killing his father. That part of her was always there, waiting for a chance to present itself. She doesn't stop being a killer or a tough-minded operator by taking in Danny a year after his father's death. She can be both maternal and dangerous, without sacrificing either characteristic. This seems like an oddly obvious thing to point out, but it's also kind of necessary, since genre movies with a lead female character so often forget that such characters can be more than one thing at once.
Danny has had a rough go of it since his father's murder. He was first taken in by his grandmother, who died soon after. The boy was supposed to go to a group home, but he ran away before that could happen. While living in a Boston park, the goons of a rival mob family found him, and Danny began working for Uncle (Xander Berkeley), an abusive drug dealer who has turned the kid into one of his delivery boys.
Mary has been following Danny, and after finding him passed out in an alley, she takes the boy to her loft apartment. To free Danny from his servitude, Mary kills Uncle.
This starts a retaliatory war between Mary's boss Benny (Danny Glover) and Uncle's boss Luka (Rade Serbedzija). In order to protect herself and Danny, Mary plays dumb about Uncle's murder, even setting up one of her comrades to take the fall. Meanwhile, Benny's son and Mary's former lover Tom (Billy Brown) wants the battle between the rival families to escalate.
All of this is fairly standard stuff, and it's ultimately a distraction from seeing what else there is in Mary and how the central relationship—between Mary and Danny—could grow. The movie works best when it leaves these two characters to their own devices—Mary trying to balance her work and caring for Danny, while Danny tests this stranger to see if she's just going to be another person who ultimately treats him poorly. There's a deeper connection between these two. Both, we know, have been abused, neglected, and transformed by powerful men. Both only know one way to live, but they also know that there has to be more potential in their lives than the opportunities they've been handed.
It becomes apparent that the screenwriters and director Babak Najafi care about these characters, as well as the bond between them. There's a sinking feeling that the filmmakers also are willing to dismiss those concerns in favor of plot and action. They often do, following the political machinations of Tom and Benny against the rival gang, setting up the conflict between Mary and Danny over his father's murder (but doing nothing with it), and inevitably moving these characters towards a violent, bloody standoff in an industrial setting.
The promise of the central character is present, and Henson plays that marriage of the motherly and the mortal with conviction. Proud Mary lets down its more effective, character-driven elements, though, with its reliance on a routine story and generic action.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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