Directed by Babak Najafi (2018)
by Sandy DeVito
It's a letdown that the rest of Proud Mary doesn't follow the strength of two things in particular: two badass promo posters and really solid opening credits.The credits feature a retro vibe and Papa Was a Rolling Stone by The Temptations (which immediately made me think of The Nice Guys, which also features that song for its opening credits - and I wish this film had more in common with that one, because this has all the ingredients to be great, but never really utilizes any of its pieces), wherein Taraji P. Henson is merely getting dressed. But this is Taraji we're talking about. And watching her get dressed to, clearly, take somebody out, is a joy. None of Proud Mary's shortcomings are on Taraji's shoulders. The main thing is it just never really tries to do anything interesting with its premise - it's competently written, shot, and directed. But competent is not good per se. This is more of a "fine."
On the other hand, I think it's bullshit that Sony tried to bury this film the way they did - I saw several movies over the past year with extensive marketing campaigns, lauded by many, that I hated far more than this. Why the hell would they refuse to give press screeners for a competently made action film such as this? One inevitably must conclude that beyond the film not turning out the way they'd hoped, if indeed that's even the case, burying a film driven by a woman of color is a bad look, especially in the current climate. Taraji carries a vast amount of the heavy lifting here, injecting heart, charisma, and guts where perhaps the script was lacking it - I don't think the director, Babak Najafi, had much of a vision to speak of regarding the way he chose to direct the film. Why not have a woman of color direct this film? There's literally no reason not to give the directing chair to a woman for this project. It's fucking 2018.
The film also suffers from an odd lack of Mary sometimes, choosing to spend long scenes on young Danny (Jahi Di'Allo Winston), an orphan Mary has taken in over guilt from killing his father for a job the year before. Winston is a good actor, to be sure, and I'm interested to see the projects he'll do as he gets older, but since the film is named after Mary, it should be Mary's story, primarily. We also don't get as much backstory about her as I'd like - we're sort of thrown into the thick of things without our footing, and we're never given much of an opportunity to find it. I did like Mary and Danny's chemistry with one another, though - many of those moments are among the best in an otherwise bland collection of scenes. The climax has some fun to offer, and a badass moment of catharsis for Mary, but it could have been more, and the disappointment comes from seeing all the necessary components for something special, but never actually getting a memorable, cohesive narrative.
It should have gotten more of a marketing push and it should have gotten press screeners, but maybe more importantly, it should have had more women behind the scenes to create a special project that this clearly had immense potential to be. As it is, it's fine. But it could have been fucking great. The time is long past to not only give women of color protagonist roles in films, but the high-concept projects they deserve, and opportunities for women behind the camera. Only 18% of the films produced in 2017 gave major behind-the-scenes roles to women. Hollywood still has a lot of fucking work to do. Let's all make sure we're demanding more of them.