In 1969, the song “Proud Mary” was written by John Fogerty – for his band Clearance Clearwater Revival – but aside from the title character of this movie being named Mary, there isn’t much else they have in common. The original song was about a woman who worked as a maid for rich people – Fogerty has stated in interviews about the song that, “She gets off the bus every morning and goes to work and holds their lives together and then she has to go home” – later, Stu Cook introduced the riverboat element to the song, and thus “Proud Mary” went from being about a maid to being about a boat. Now, in 2018, we have a movie called Proud Mary – that is neither about a maid nor a boat – but it does include the song, so I guess that’s something.
Mary (Taraji P. Henson) is a hit woman who works for an organized crime family in Boston – led by her mentor/father figure Benny (Danny Glover) and his son Tom (Billy Brown), who has a romantic history with Mary – and the crux of the movie is that Mary is one of those “Killers with a heart of gold” who eventually takes in a young kid named Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), who was orphaned by Mary when she killed his father on orders from Benny. Killers with a conscience are certainly nothing new in movies; Leon: The Professional, The Bourne Identity and La Femme Nikita just to name a few, but with Proud Mary – whose guilt over orphaning a kid leads to her decision to abandon her life of crime to become a mother – fails to work, as the writers of this movie hadn’t bothered to actually give us a character with more than one dimension.
The plot kicks into gear when Mary kills a rival gang member (Xander Berkeley), who young Danny had become an abused ward of after being orphaned by Mary. The killing of this particular asshole – and several of his Russian goons – sets off a gang war between Benny’s organization and the Russian’s led by Luka (Rade Serbedzija), and so for the first half of the movie we get Mary trying to keep Danny safe – while also hiding the fact that she was the one that started this whole mess by killing some Russian asshats. Then things shift into the common territory with the cliché of our hero wanting to get out of the mob business, and the “family” not allowing this to happen.
Proud Mary has some decent action sequences – a hot woman with a gun is always a good selling point – but for the most part, I never found myself emotionally invested in any of it. Taraji P. Henson had already proven she could play the badass assassin type in the movie Smokin’ Aces, but here she is almost too reluctant and lethargic for me to buy her as a top level killer for the mob. This failure has nothing to do with Henson’s acting ability – what the script gives her she delivers with aplomb – but the writing she is given is simply terrible, with such scintillating dialog as, “Newsflash, asshole! I am the mothering type!” This seems more like a cheap punchline than any kind of earned dramatic moment. The forced mother/son bonding between Mary and Danny is never really believable – weakening what was already a cliché ridden plot – and sure, we don’t always need fresh and original ideas in our action movies, but if your three act structure is going to be something that the average film goer is going to see coming a mile away, well than you better amp up the action sequences to make up for your lack in story. Yet as stated above, the action moments in this film, though fairly decent, are just nothing to brag about.
Couple of stray thoughts:
• Mary kills a bookie on orders from Benny only to immediately discover that the man had a son, and this upsets her. Had all her previous hits been on people without wives, husbands, or children? If you’re a hired killer you’d have to know there will be some kind of fallout from what you do for a living.
• Mary and Tom raid a country estate to take on a couple dozen Russian gangsters. How understaffed is Benny’s organization that he only sends two people to take out an unknown number of enemies, in a building that could easily hold a hundred gun toting assholes. Jason Bourne and Rambo do this shit alone because they are “on their own” but there is no reason for Benny not to send more of his soldiers to help Mary and Tom.
I didn’t expect a Tarantinoesque-blacksploitation type film from Proud Mary and with it being directed by the guy who brought us the craptacular London Has Fallen, that was a given, yet I was still hoping to get an adrenaline fuelled action ride with a badass black heroine. Instead what we got was a hackneyed script that wasted a very talented cast. Proud Mary is mostly guilty of being instantly forgettable – I would have rather watched a movie about a hard working maid, one who maybe had a river boat named after her – so I advise you to pop in the song and give this movie a pass.