Last year’s “Hidden Figures” made me a Taraji P. Henson fan. She’s been acting for 20 years, with early roles like “Girl #3” in “Saved By the Bell: The New Class.” FYI, her career is doing much better than the leads in that show, which I had forgotten existed but still watched back in the day. Looking at her resume, I knew I’ve seen her in a few things, but she didn’t truly stand out for me until she took on the role of Katherine Johnson in the Oscar-nominated film about the black women that made NASA soar.
Roles in films like “Hidden Figures” or shows like “Empire” have shown the versatility Henson has when she steps in front of a camera. So, it makes sense that a film like “Proud Mary” would have been the perfect vehicle for Henson to add “action star” to her resume. But, it wasn’t.
If you’re unfamiliar with “Proud Mary,” you aren’t alone. The film was released in January of this year but was essentially blown off by its production company, Sony/Screen Gems. There wasn’t a lot of publicity for the film, and reportedly, it was even yanked from some theaters. Ultimately, the film made just $21 million worldwide.
So, I was curious. What could tank a movie so badly that its own studio wouldn’t back it? Was it the “blaxploitation” cries I kept hearing about? Graphic violence even more obscene than the graphic violence already on screens? What had they done to provoke so little of a reaction from basically everyone?
After watching the 88-minute film, I still couldn’t tell you. The film is utterly unremarkable in most every way. It’s also pretty bad, so maybe it was just a matter of principle.
Henson — who also was an executive producer — stars as Mary, a hitwoman for the mob. During one of her assignments, she kills the father of a kid, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) and is overcome with guilt. It’s one thing to murder someone, but leaving a kid an orphan ... well, that’s a burden.
Flash forward a year, and Danny is working for a rival mob leader, running drugs and getting the crap beaten out of him regularly. Mary has been keeping an eye on him and intervenes when Danny is hurt. Unfortunately, she starts a mob war that can only end bloody.
There’s a part of me that is thankful the film is only 88 minutes. I’m not sure I could have handled much more. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if the film could have benefited from an extra 30 minutes or so. The story and character could have been fleshed out or even just made interesting.
That’s the biggest problem with “Proud Mary:” The film is boring. The characters are boring. The dialogue. The settings. Everything is standard and unoriginal. The characters are nothing more than caricatures that we’ve seen a thousand times before.
I mean, really, get a load of these characters:
• Mary. She’s caught up in underworld dealings and just wants to break free. She wants to take Danny and run away from all the darkness she’s known her whole life.
• Danny is a black boy whose mother abandons him, and when his bookie dad is killed, he turns to the streets and gets involved with drug sales.
• Benny (Danny Glover) is the leader of the mob. It’s all about family to him. He has people slaughtered yet he plans a nice dinner to celebrate his wife’s birthday.
• Tom (Billy Brown) is Benny’s son and Mary’s ex. Seriously, there’s nothing to him beyond those two facts.
All four are stale caricatures that you’ve seen in a thousand movies or read about in a thousand books. Mary should be a character that inspires awe as she gets things done, taking names and walking over anyone who gets in her way. Instead, her character is flat and uninteresting. Oh, sure, she goes badass a couple of times as she takes down assailant after assailant on missions, but they’re just standard shoot-em-up scenes. They aren’t cool or interesting. I accidentally hit a button and forwarded through the last one for a few seconds and yet, I don’t think I missed anything.
The film tries for an emotional angle as Mary discovers her connection to the orphan goes beyond just guilt. We’re meant to feel the pain she feels as she tries to break away from Benny’s gang. I’m guessing Tom is supposed to provide some kind of romantic angst? Instead of connecting to the story, the things most memorable were how badly Mary’s stash of cash and guns were hidden. I also marveled at how a Maserati could be riddled with bullet holes but still be completely drivable — luxury, my friends — and how Mary casually walks off gunshot wounds.
While Henson tries her best to be charismatic and impressive in “Proud Mary,” she just can’t escape the cheesy and uninspired dialogue, predictable plot and boring characters. The film is even unsubtle enough to play Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” as Mary heads off to the final big battle. Really, y’all?
The studio realized they’d created mediocrity, thus dooming the film to failure. This might be one of those times Henson wishes she was playing “Girl 3#” again. The film didn’t find an audience in theaters, and I only can hope it doesn’t find one on Redbox now. It’s not $2 well spent.