Proud Mary (2018) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Proud Mary (2018)

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Mary's been working for, and finding love in, one of Boston's most powerful crime families.  Danny was orphaned by Mary after she kills his father during a routine assassination.  Some time later their paths cross with Mary hoping to break the cycle of violence and take Danny with her.  Babak Najafi directs Proud Mary, with the screenplay written by John Stuart Newman, Christian Swegal, and Steve Antin, and stars Taraji P. Henson.

Taraji P. Henson has a spot on my personal list of performers who make everything better by simply appearing in their product.  From the big to small screen - Henson has squared off with the likes of Terrence Howard, William Shatner, and Janelle Monáe, stolen the spotlight from them, and made whatever product she's in feel more unpredictable because of her presence.  The only other performer I can say that about is Eva Greene, and should the two cross paths in a film somewhere down the line I may rip myself apart like a '90s superhero.

A star of her caliber should not have been forced to carry the entire promotional work of Proud Mary on her own and that's essentially what happened earlier this year.  Now that I've seen Proud Mary, I understand why but not to distributor Paramount's benefit.  Proud Mary isn't the slam-bang action film the trailer might have made it out to be.  Instead, Proud Mary is something weirder and more entertaining with Henson's unpredictable performance as Mary spreading to the rest of the cast, resulting in a once charming then menacing turn from Danny Glover and others.

Mary and Danny's relationship is unpredictable thanks to Mary's insistence in Danny's life and his justified suspicion of her.

The closest analogue I have to Proud Mary is another strange film, Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the SamuraiBabak Najafi, who directed Proud Mary, doesn't have Jarmusch's cool or melancholic spirit but knows well enough to give the performers space to breathe when they're doing interesting work.  Mary (Henson) is a gripping figure from our first glimpse of her on, donning a comically ineffective blonde wig (which I took as a sly dig at how many white women throw on a blonde wig and are undetectable in other films involving assassins), and playing a creepy lurking mentor to young Danny (Jahi Di'Allo Winston).

All the credit in the world to Henson, who makes Mary out to be somewhat unstable and dropping overly obvious hints to Danny about what she really does.  Their relationship is what gives Proud Mary most of its unpredictability as Danny - rightly - wonders why this strange woman dragged him into her home and is more comfortable being covered in blood than with Danny's cursing.  There's good reason for her idiosyncratic nature as hints get slowly doled out over Proud Mary's run-time, but the tension between her and Danny never lets up.  Winston is a great partner for Henson and cuts through this fantasy mother / son relationship Mary wants with just enough incredulity to make his continued presence in her life understandable while leaving the question open as to how long he'll stay around.

Henson and Winston's tense, odd, and unpredictable chemistry leaked over into additional supporting work by Glover and Billy Brown (who I'm not familiar with, but is damn entertaining in Proud Mary).  Their's is a family matter and Mary the inter-generational tool that gets treated to flowers 'n sunshine so long as she does what she's told.  Glover works especially well here, tuning into some of that old police nobility before becoming truly vile in his closing moments and Brown amplifies Glover's example which culminates in a complex scene where Brown has to portray grief, excitement, lust, and rage all at once.

I admit that the audience has to be on a weird wavelength for Proud Mary to work but it worked excellently for me.  Najafi did well to let the performers have their way with the material and directs a few of great action scenes in the meantime.  They all have a strong whiff of where Mary is personally - the first impulsive and angry, second methodical and silent (plus where the Ghost Dog influence is strongest), and the last a spectacular struggle for survival and identity where the needle finally drops for the song I was waiting for.

There's some screwed up family dynamics at play in Proud Mary which Taraji P. Henson guides the rest of the cast through resulting in a few great performances including standout Billy Brown.

Proud Mary is a solid example of performers and direction overcoming a painfully bad script.  There are three credited writers - John Stuart Newman, Christian Swegal, and Steve Antin - and divorcing the plot plus dialogue from the performances shows how thinly stretched out the concept for Proud Mary was.  It's pulled apart by the split between street-level dramatics, a straightforward badass action film, and a quirky family melodrama.  Henson single-handedly sketched an escape route through Proud Mary, but even she shouldn't have had to utter a line sharing the same block with, "If you love me, let me go."

I'm deeply disappointed in the way studios have basically given up on promoting promising films this year if they are led by talented women (see Paramount and Annihilation for another example).  But Proud Mary's release on DVD and digital gives it an opportunity to find a home with viewers who like their action films a bit off the beaten path.  Henson is a damn heroine for what she does with Proud Mary, and I hope you follow her lead to the same enjoyment I felt.

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Proud Mary (2018)

Directed by Babak Najafi.
Screenplay written by John Stuart Newman, Christian Swegal, and Steve Antin.
Starring Taraji P. Henson.

Posted by Andrew

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