The movie Proud Mary might not be anything special in itself, but its heroine sure as hell is, with Taraji P. Henson proving she can kick ass and take names like the best action hero the movie won’t let her be. She deserves far better than what Proud Mary has to offer. But it is damn fun to watch her work.
The movie actually gets to Mary’s (Henson) work right away, as she suits up and heads out to what we quickly discover is a hit. It’s the no-frills kind too, as Mary quickly steps into an apartment and shoots a man in the head with none of the typical action movie flourishes. It’s apparent that this is business as usual for her, until she discovers that the now deceased man has a preteen son, whom she spares and departs, unnoticed by the boy.
A year later, she discovers that the boy, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), has been taken in by Uncle (Neal McDonough), a mid-level criminal, and forced work for him while being subject to various types of abuse. Mary’s guilt and her background, which is painfully similar to Danny’s, drives her to try and get the kid out of his situation, which has lethal consequences for Uncle. No one pretends he’ll be missed, but Uncle nevertheless had connections…to the rivals of Mary’s surrogate crime family, who also took her in when she was young and made her the dangerous killer she is.
Needless to say, the situation seems ready blow up in her face (literally) at any moment. We know it will, but to its credit, Proud Mary doesn’t allow the coldly opulent surroundings to let us forget just how cruel the world she inhabits is. This is a movie that gives its characters all the trappings of a glamorous life of crime, only to lure us in closer and force us to see how much it rots the soul of anyone caught up in it. It’s all the more dangerous because Danny Glover’s Benny, the ruler of this world, is so skilled at playing the benevolent, loving patriarch and inspiring the devotion of everyone around him. That is, until anyone dares to express interest in freeing themselves from his grip, as Mary desperately desires.
In such a situation, even something predictably sweet as Mary’s growing bond with Danny puts them both in danger of sinking further into a world they were vulnerable enough to be drawn into, with the equally predictable bloody showdown waiting to be unleashed. That culmination, and every other action scene before it, is far more watchable than it should be, because the film also refuses to make Mary an unkillable Superwoman. She is vulnerable and human, a woman who has survived because she is very good at her job.
It’s a good thing, because the rest of the film would rather be a repetition of so many familiar beats, even if it does an admirable job discussing class, and an even better one of not making its heroine the sum of her sex appeal. So despite its flaws, there’s so much fun to be had that it’s very confusing as to why Sony hasn’t done a better job of promoting Proud Mary, especially when there’s an audience hungry for something they don’t often see, which is a black female action hero(ine). But there were no press screenings, and precious little promotion. It’s hard not to believe there isn’t at least some amount of racism involved, as others have pointed out that studios did a lot of heavy lifting on behalf of films led by white action heroines such as Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman, Daisy Ridley in Star Wars, and Charlize Theron on two very different occasions for Atomic Blonde and Mad Max. So why isn’t Henson, a major star who can bring in a huge audience, getting the same treatment? The answer seems obvious, since an average or even soul-crushing cinematic experience never prevented a studio from trying to find an audience nevertheless willing to shell out for the price of admission.