Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
To bastardize the spoken opening from Ike and Tina Turner’s CCR cover song from which this film earns its name: “You know, every now and then, Hollywood thinks we wanna see something nice and easy. But they never ever do nothing nice, easy. They always do it nice and rough.” It’s no lie that the filmmakers take “the beginning of this easy” (to the point of boredom) and “do the finish rough” (in a hail of bullets). But this is how director Babak Najafi does PROUD MARY wrong. While it’s certainly not terrible, and there are myriad highlights to the protagonist’s redemptive arc, it’s clear that this picture could’ve excelled in far more talented hands had they amped up the genre aspects.
Mary (Taraji P. Henson) is a highly skilled assassin for a feared Boston area crime family, whose job entails knowing all the information about a mark before inserting herself into the situation. Trouble is, she didn’t realize that her target had a teen son, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston). Since she doesn’t do “women and kids” – like LEON – she leaves him alive as the only witness (who is preoccupied with playing videogames, he didn’t see anything). A year later, she’s still feeling raw about it, knowing she opened this kid up to a doomed life on the streets. Her attempt at making it right goes pear shaped, leading her boss Benny (Danny Glover) and other local crime bosses into a turf war. Can she keep the higher-ups, including the boss’s son/ her ex-flame Tom (Billy Brown), from finding out she ignited this battle? Will she be able to get out clean? If you don’t fall asleep, you’ll get your answers.
The screenplay by Steve Antin, John Stewart Newton and Christian Swegal desperately aches for a further polish. At its core, this is a character-driven drama, a la director John Cassavetes’ GLORIA. We see a sweet, playful bond form between Mary and Danny over the course of a few scenes as they eat, shop for fancy clothes and look out on the Boston Harbor. Their similar backstory connection is evident, though it’s learned solely through dialogue. The narrative also reflects the heavy influence of Pam Grier’s strength and raw power in 70’s exploitation pictures like FOXY BROWN. Henson’s pathos, vulnerability and strength are transcendent. She has a gift for mining all the physical nuances of her role, and makes you believe you’re seeing a better written movie. Mary’s redemptive journey of a woman reclaiming independence and identity through wisdom and wit comes alive in her capable hands.
Are these positive qualities allowed to pulsate through Najafi’s entire picture? Not as much as you’d hope – and that’s a shame. It would benefit greatly from more heightened stylistic sensibilities in the narrative, pacing and aesthetics. It shoots for a JOHN WICK vibe, but doesn’t empty the magazine.
Also dragging down momentum are uncharacteristically stupid things the characters do. How did Mary not know her mark had a son – and that he’d essentially be orphaned if she took the job?! This seems like information that would be in the dossier. The filmmakers force the audience to make the jump that it was bad intel. Danny leaves his lookout position in the car for flimsy reasons beyond being the primary device that transitions us into act three. The criminal organization’s war over territory is a big nothing burger. Actually, it’s altogether forgotten about by act three. But don’t worry. You won’t be mourning its loss.
Though this will certainly not go down as the worst film of the year (nor as the worst film not screened for critics prior to release), PROUD MARY will assuredly rank as underwhelming.
PROUD MARY is now playing.