Proud Mary is a movie that isn’t sure what it wants to be. The opening credits are pure blaxploitation. However, once the movie starts, it seems more of a mafia-style action movie. By the end, it is a revenge thriller in the mode of John Wick, but without the solid direction that made that film great.
It is lucky for Proud Mary that they cast Taraji P. Henson in the lead role. Her acting and performance is the only thing that helps elevate this movie from a B-level film that at one time would have starred someone like Pam Grier.
Henson is Mary Goodwin, a hitwoman for an organized crime family ran by Benny (Danny Glover). The movie starts out with Mary getting ready, putting on her makeup and clothes, before getting her guns and heading out to gun a man down in his apartment.
It is at this particular hit that Mary realizes this man (a bookie who was in for a lot of money) has a son, and she refuses to off the kid, leaving him behind. Over the next year, Mary stalks the kid and watches him, trying to figure out what she can do to make it up to him.
She learns that the kid ended up living on the streets and working for Uncle (Xander Berkeley), one of the leaders of a rival mafia family. After Uncle injures the boy for skimming money from a take, Mary finds him unconscious in an alley. When she learns that Uncle did this to him, she goes and murders the man and all his soldiers by his side.
This is the setup, and it worked great. However, from this point on the movie was nothing more than cliff notes of a better film, rather than one that worked on its own. Mary says she screwed up, and while she doesn’t elaborate at the time, it is because Uncle’s family believes Benny’s troops ordered the hit and a war between the families break out.
From this point on, things just happen. Proud Mary tries to make audiences care when they reveal Mary was an orphan pulled off the streets by Benny – just like little Danny – it makes her willingness to do anything to protect him make sense.
Like most child characters, Danny is a little too precocious, acting rough and tough but having a sense of needing someone to help him. The problem is that his relationship with Mary is too contrived and even when he learns that she killed his dad, he has a throwaway line that makes everything ok.
There is also the problem of Mary wanting out of Benny’s debt and her past romantic relationship with Benny’s son Tom (Billy Brown). Everything is there to connect the dots of a revenge mafia thriller, but there is nothing of substance between those dots.
Even the final battle, while fun and energetic, pales in comparison to something like John Wick. That is not the fault of this movie, as that is a high level to reach. However, director Babak Najafi has proven in the past that he hasn’t been able to match better directors (he helmed London Has Fallen before this, the disappointing sequel to Antoine Fuqua’s more capably directed Olympus Has Fallen).
At the end of the day, Taraji P. Henson does what she does best. Henson brought Mary to life and made us care about her. It is too bad the Proud Mary, as a movie, didn’t want to do enough to make us care about anything else.