This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Directed by: Babak Najafi
Genre: Action, Drama
We all know what a movie spy looks like: sharply dressed, fancy-looking concealed weapons, maybe a sleek wig for the ladies, and a bulletproof swagger, which is exactly how Taraji P. Henson’s character is depicted in both the trailer and the credits sequence of PROUD MARY. But PROUD MARY isn’t delivered as advertised; instead, it is a clumsy attempt at an exploration of woman- and motherhood . . . written by three men. In fact, none of the key creatives on this film were women, and let me tell you, it REALLY, really shows. But the simplistic, one-dimensional portrayal of a woman supposedly in conflict isn’t even the biggest issue that permeates PROUD MARY: it is the poor character development and artless structure, which compound one another’s shortcomings to create a perfect storm of lousy storytelling.
Taraji P. Henson plays Mary, a member of a Bostonian crime family who was adopted and molded from an early age by the family patriarch, Benny, to become an efficient and ruthless killer. But her past is not revealed until halfway through the movie, at which point it feels more like a half-assed retcon than a foundation for her character, and the audience is forced to guess or make assumptions about her as the first half of the movie passes by. When her background finally is revealed, the material is so sparse and unspecific that it confuses her actions instead of explaining them. And speaking of actions, it would be more accurate to describe them as re-actions: Mary never makes a real decision and rarely even speaks if there is more than one man sharing the screen with her.
When we meet her, she has just killed a bookie who was deep in debt, a hit ordered by Benny. She realizes that the bookie had a 13-year-old son, and immediately feels badly about the assassination. Mary takes an interest in the newly-made orphan, Danny, and rescues him a year later from his life of abuse fending for himself and working for a rival crime family. Her guilt is clear, but not much else. Does she like working for the crime family? Is she good at it? Is she tough? Is she sensitive? Does she cry after every job? Does she drink to forget? We just don’t know. In the first half of the movie, there is no hint that she is unhappy with her life in general—just guilty about this particular hit—so it’s confusing when it’s revealed that she has tried to leave her position within the family before, and she’s trying to leave again. Her relationship with the family was not established, so her desire to leave is simply factual and has no emotional impact.
PROUD MARY was advertised as an action movie, but the reality of the content is that there are only three scenes in the entire film that boast any thrills at all. Most of the film is devoted to Mary’s growing relationship with Danny and her rejection of Benny and the crime family, which could have been a compelling story but wasn’t due to the absolute lack of establishment of any of the pertinent relationships and her feelings about them. The shortcomings in laying the foundation of her character mean that it’s impossible for Mary to have any kind of meaningful arc, nor were any of her actions compelled by anything other than a basic reaction to others’ actions. And because we didn’t get to know her, by the end of the movie, it was impossible to tell if she had done the things she’d done because she was very dim, or because she had a secret plan, or because she had a volatile temper, or something else entirely. This total neglect of creating and introducing a complex and multifaceted female character is common in male-helmed action movies, but it is usually less glaringly obvious because these female characters are never the protagonist of the movie. Since Mary is the protagonist, the shortcomings in her character development are exaggerated and impossible to ignore since the whole story hinges on her. It seems the filmmakers were confused about who she was supposed to be and they passed that confusion on to the audience.
The most painful part of PROUD MARY is that the premise had real potential to become an excellent film. On top of that, the casting and acting was excellent and so much better than the script deserved. But even the most talented actors can only do so much with the words and characters they’re given, and it just isn’t enough to make PROUD MARY an enjoyable watch. The one brilliant feat of filmmaking present in this feature is the final action sequence, when Mary storms the gang’s compound to save Danny. It is that brief moment, so refreshingly badass, that it makes sitting through the rest of this unexciting dud almost worth it. The movie that PROUD MARY is for that one scene is the movie we were sold in the trailer, a trailer that knew better what the movie wanted to be than the movie itself.
SERIOUSLY, THIS PART WAS GREAT
After a couple years of awe-inspiring action films about kickass women, PROUD MARY is unworthy to stand alongside excellent films like WONDER WOMAN or MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, which is especially heartbreaking since Taraji P. Henson is the only woman in a position of power behind the camera (she served as an executive producer) and one of only two women in the entire movie. For what it’s worth, Henson gave a strong performance and outdid herself in each of the action sequences. It seems that the writers thought they were being clever by revealing very little about Mary and giving her even less to say, but instead, her “mystery” read as confusion and her reserve in the presence of men as outdated demureness. All that is to say, PROUD MARY is a disaster on most fronts and a great disappointment in its portrayal of a female action lead. The action sequences are all it has going for it, but I recommend you look those up on YouTube in a few months and skip waiting through the longest 88 minutes of your life—use them to watch HIDDEN FIGURES or a couple episodes of EMPIRE instead. You can thank me later.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend