If you watched any of the marketing for Babak Najafi's Proud Mary, the obvious comparison that likely came to mind was John Wick. A respected actor later in their career becomes a super assassin in a stylish-yet-stripped down action flick. This genre has become a staple at the movies in this early year graveyard going back to Taken and the countless Liam Neeson films (hey! another one is out now!). These films that have become so over-the-top ridiculous that the John Wicks and Atomic Blondes have risen as a more honest alternative.
The next in line, Proud Mary, stars Taraji P. Henson in the title role. In some ways, holding it up against John Wick makes a lot of sense. For the many differences in the films, though, it is a bit unfair.
Despite what you saw in the trailers, Proud Mary really isn't the high octane shoot-em-up you'd expect. Henson gets plenty of opportunity to shine as a complete killing machine, but this is a movie much more about an internal struggle and character relationships than free fire.
But in that vein, the differences in how Proud Mary and John Wick approach dramatic stakes possibly shows why one succeeds and the other has ended up a bit off. The emotional core of John Wick is firmly tongue-in-cheek -- it is a terrible situation, certainly, but the consequences for the characters are taken to a different level of reality. In Proud Mary, the film really wants us to care for the characters in a way that the characters feel for each other. Not helped by soft piano music stamped over everything, its dramatic stakes quickly become melodramatic when they are supposed to live in a world more like ours than John Wick's.
I admit that many of Proud Mary's problems are related to expectations. There has been a lot of wondering why Screen Gems didn't promote the film more. My best guess is they were trying to sell a movie in a specific way that wasn't as much like the final product as they wanted it to be.
What it's about: Tajari P. Henson is a super assassin -- that is certainly the film's most important hook. While protecting a young boy who works as a drug runner for a Russian mob leader called Uncle, things go bad when Mary confronts the rival crime boss. Her actions and the unfortunate aftermath spark a turf war, bringing both physical and emotional turmoil into her and her loved ones' lives.
The film's Leon-esque relationship between an assassin and a child offers the more enjoyable elements of the film. At least when it is trying to be fun, that is. There is far more gravity when they are simply shooting the shit, whether about the proper attire to wear to a friend's dinner party or their preferred hot dog condiment. These small moments connect much better than when it goes for dramatic heft.
Another thing you wouldn't exactly get from the film's marketing: Mary is far from a purely badass killer. The film is very invested in showing her as a character who is struggling to keep it all together, with mixed success. I appreciate them going for something a little more nuanced, but we don't know enough about who the character is to get why these specific circumstances affect her in this particular way.
Much of the film's aesthetic is pretty generic. There's really no visual or narrative flair that sets it apart from other low-budget pot boilers.
Another way it could have improved is jumping into the throwback blaxploitation elements that it was tangentially interested in. It simply wasn't gritty enough in that way.
At the end of the day, Proud Mary is a film I simply wanted to be better. It isn't actively bad for the most part, just sort of there.
To end on a positive note, Tajari P. Henson is predictably good, even in the film's less inspired melodramatic bits. There likely won't be many better performances in mediocre-to-bad films this year.