This review is by our guest writer Mia Vicino.
Starting out strong with a funky opening credit sequence set to “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” a nod to blaxploitation films of the 70s, Proud Mary appeared to be steeped in potential. As the titular Mary, a hit woman for a powerful Boston crime family, checks out her personal arsenal of sleek guns with her steely stare, we sense we’re in for a wild ride of firefights and ass-kicking by the one-and-only Taraji P. Henson. Sadly, this is not the movie we get.
Instead, Proud Mary is loosely based on the plot of the 1980 John Cassavetes crime drama Gloria starring Gena Rowlands. After a hit goes awry, Mary finds herself responsible for a young boy named Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston). Juggling both childcare and an assassination profession is a ripe set-up for some comedic scenes, such as Mary taking Danny to a hot dog cart near her mark’s apartment so she can surreptitiously scope out the area.
Later, as a white saleswoman helps Mary buy new clothes for Danny, he complains about how he wants to get out of this “bougie-ass store.” This scene is a high point, as it nails the comedy of the situation while firmly positioning the film from a Black perspective. The prioritization of the Black perspective is further demonstrated by the fact that although Proud Mary is of the crime genre, no police ever appear — perhaps a commentary on the prevalence of American police brutality against Black people. While the film definitely succeeds with its comedy and racial politics, the dramatics are where most of its weaknesses lie.
The majority of the 88-minute runtime attempts to get the audience to care about the relationship between Mary and Danny, but the lack of a decent script is a huge hindrance. We understand why she cares about the kid — both grew up on the streets and had abusive families — but why does she care so much about the kid? And why must films about women, even crime films, be so often about motherhood when there are so many other facets of womanhood to explore? During these melodramatic moments, lines from the script seem to be taken verbatim from cheesy action flicks, but not in a self-referential way. For example, after Danny asks about Mary’s checkered past, she sighs, “Look kid, let’s just say it’s complicated.” And cue sappy music.
However, the film improves once the action speeds up during the third act. A particularly stand-out gunfight set to the a Tina Turner cover of the eponymous song “Proud Mary” is no doubt the highlight, and embodies the Proud Mary we should’ve gotten: a film full of funk-rock music and sick shootouts at the hands of an empowered woman.
The frustrating thing about Proud Mary, much like last summer’s Atomic Blonde, is that the potential subversion of conventional power dynamics are overshadowed by a convoluted, predictable and unoriginal plot. Sure, there’s definitely cultural value in the idea that the filmmakers are positioning a Black woman as a powerful lead, as well as race-bending the predominantly white film Gloria, but the execution is simply too lackluster.
But at least there are some jaw-dropping She Did That! moments.
Mia Vicino is a guest writer for Much Ado About Cinema. If you would like to contribute your own essay or review to the site, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, or use the contact form provided.