As I said in my Insidious: The Final Key review, I’ll be transitioning out of this site as well as the former http://www.dragonhousestudios.org website as my current social media presence is spread entirely too thin. The new site will have loads of neat stuff, like teasers for new projects, podcasts and an in-universe wikia! In the meantime, enjoy this Proud Mary review!
Starring the very beautiful and very talented Taraji P. Henson in a movie that Sony refuses to market because they’re idiots, Proud Mary follows hitman (or hitwoman if the aforementioned term makes you balk) Mary caught up in a tale of intrigue, espionage and loss as she seeks to atone for her sins one year prior. A job executed flawlessly leaves a young teenager orphaned and alone, and Mary sees in him a child left abandoned in the same circumstances that forced her to become a killer for a local crime family. Having unwittingly broken her rule against targeting children (or women), Mary takes it upon herself to put right what was taken from him.
As always, we’re going to do a The Good, A Mixed Bag, and The Bad section, with spoilers where appropriate. Let’s roll!
A strong black female lead in a literary world sorely lacking all of the above.
Let’s be perfectly honest, while the world of writing is allowing for far more female leads (albeit far too often their sex and sexuality is at the forefront of the “plot”), that world still has created almost no room for a black female lead. One of the things that is to the story’s marketing merit may be the fact that it is not necessarily a “uniquely black narrative”, but at the same time leading lady Taraji as Mary also doesn’t “gentrify her blackness” for the sake of making the world market comfortable.
Mary talks with her “accent”, has our cultural body language when upset, happy, throwing shade or showing love, but she is a protagonist who also isn’t defined by ethnic stereotypes either. What’s more, she’s a female lead who is very beautiful while dressing and acting appropriately for an assassin and warrior.
One of the things I look for, and listen for, in every movie with a female lead is how she dresses and sounds when going to a fight. I found it exceedingly refreshing that Mary dresses up when she wants to, lounges in sweats when she feels like it, and never wears heels to a fight (save one scene where it was appropriate for her cover). What’s more, her combat grunts and groans sound like a woman in a fight, not an actress told to “keep it cute”.
Mary is a highly intelligent character, running an incredibly dangerous long con through the entirety of the movie once her decision to protect the orphaned Danny causes untold danger for Benny’s crime family who took her in. Another thing of value is that Mary isn’t invincible; when she’s hurt, it stays with her the whole movie. When she’s going non-stop, she has to take cover and catch her breath. When she’s sad, she shows it. When she’s heartbroken, she cries. When she’s scared, you see it in her countenance, and when she’s pissed?
It’s best to get out of her way.
A Narrative That Never Forgets its Purpose
While Proud Mary is a great action film, at its heart it’s a story of motherhood. While there are many interesting and intricate subplots hinted at in the narrative, the movie wisely never forgets that above all else it is a story about the love between Mary and Danny.
As Mary’s long con to try and protect Danny after her actions put them both in considerable danger, we’re also introduced to subplots such as the fractured romantic history between Mary and Tom, crime boss Benny’s son:
As well as the power struggle between Benny and Tom, and a relationship that at first appears familial and protective between Benny and Mary, but soon begins to show how possessive and dangerous it truly is. Still, while all of these are interesting threads that are given the appropriate amount of focus throughout the movie, the prevailing point is that everything Mary does, she does for Danny, to atone and to provide the boy a better life than either of them had.
The Movie Remembers Mary is a Human Female Warrior in a Predominantly Male World
I touched on it earlier, but while this is a movie that isn’t about “one woman trying to survive in a man’s, man’s world”, it does wisely remember that Mary is a 5’5” 140 pound woman fighting grown men. Aside from one shoulder toss that was a little hard to believe (but honestly, considerably more believable than anything you’ve overlooked Black Widow doing in The Avengers), Mary’s form factor and realistic strength are taken into account in every battle.
Mary doesn’t win fights because the plot demands it, she survives battles because she’s aware of what she’s working with and she uses it, and weapons of convenience, to her advantage.
From the very beginning of the film, we see how hard Mary works to stay in fighting shape. From her daily workout routine to her hidden chamber of firearms in her bedroom, Mary doesn’t rely on luck to see her through a battle. The times when she loses focus, she pays for it badly and we see her bear those injuries for the rest of the narrative. And, the times when Mary is on her game, she’s a delight to watch dismantle the opposition in fights that ring strongly of a Lady John Wick (which I say with the highest of compliments).
A Mixed Bag:
Wait, you really had no questions about that?
One of the things that was a little hard to believe, was how oblivious crime boss Benny is about the various power plays and secrets going on around him. You could chalk it up to arrogance, but if we’re to believe Benny picked Mary up off of the streets when she was a pre-teen/teenager and both raised and trained her, I found it difficult to suspend my disbelief for how little he seemed to be aware of the changes going on in her countenance.
Now, the average movie, even an average action movie, is closer to two hours for its run time. Proud Mary is closer to an hour and a half, so it’s reasonable to assume that there’s more character exposition that got left behind. With regard to the central relationship, that of the mother/son bond between Mary and Danny, there’s a great deal of development and a wealth of sides to these characters that we get to see. I found it refreshing that Danny in particular doesn’t transform into a boy with no issues the moment Mary starts caring for him. We see him realistically rebelling, and a particularly heart clenching moment where he throws the as yet unstated question of whether Mary will just abuse him like other adults if he doesn’t do as she says, right in her face.
Unfortunately, because the movie is so Mary/Danny focused and moves along at such a steady clip, some movie goers may be left wanting more than the implied histories given. In some ways this is a good thing; at a certain point in the narrative it becomes clear that even though Benny seems to care a great deal about Mary, he was also clearly abusive towards her as well. The nature of this abuse is left unstated, a clever narrative tactic that allows the viewer to identify with Mary on a broader scale as they can self-insert their own painful pasts and then watch a badass heroine overcome those struggles.
We do see a particularly chilling window into that relationship with what appears to be a throwaway line early on between Danny and Mary that comes back in powerful fashion between Mary and Benny later. That whole “I need you to look at me, and tell me you understand” line takes on a whole new meaning when you see the otherwise stentorian Mary break into shivering tears the moment Benny hurls it at her.
Likewise, we never know clearly the reason for Mary’s breakup with Tom. Again, the movie gives you plenty to assume; Tom is shown at first to be protective, but that protective nature is later eked out to be more bullying, threatening and malicious as time goes on. Two scenes in particular stand out that give you a window into what dating a man like Tom must have been like, but there was still a desire to know a bit more about the history these characters shared. Still, I gave Insidious 4 a pass for the sisters arc being all of two minutes long, and I’m certainly not going to harp on Proud Mary for something they spent more than twice that time cultivating.
Too many jump cuts
Maybe movies like John Wick, The Raid, The Man From Nowhere and others have spoiled me, but one of my major pet peeves is when fight scenes have a ton of jump cuts (see: every super hero movie and most action films). Proud Mary has fights that would be fitting in a John Wick film, particularly the final battles, but for all the jump cuts and a handful of shaky cam moments that detract from the experience. The fights are still a high point for the movie, and have a lovingly stylized flare, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say the jump cuts take away from the immersion and the experience.
Mary and Danny are very smart; no one else is
I’m sorry, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, but Luka, Tom, Benny, Walter and Uncle are just…frighteningly slow on the uptake. I mentioned it before, but when Mary loses her temper and takes action that puts the whole cast in danger at the beginning (in an impressive opening fight), her countenance changes quite dramatically thereafter. The fact that it takes Tom half the movie to go “Huh. Something is a little weird about how this woman I know completely is acting” and Benny pretty much never questions Mary’s behavior beyond using it to bully her is just…a little silly to be honest.
Mary has a magical bag of tricks, that she pretty much never uses
Mary has a gun locker that would make El Mariachi feel under dressed. Unfortunately, she kinda doesn’t use it. Mary sticks to her handguns and an assault rifle, even though at one point we clearly see her shoving grenades, smoke bombs and flash bangs into her duffel bag. I’m willing to wager a bigger final act may have been cut due to budgeting reasons, but it’s a bit of a Chekhov’s Gun scenario (the rule goes, if in act one the writer makes a point of mentioning the rifle hanging above the mantle piece, then by the third act by golly that gun better have been fired or it has no point). The takeaway could be that Mary is so cool she doesn’t need those weapons, but really I just watched her in a lot of scenarios where I went “A grenade would be good there. Or there. Or there. Or there.”
The Final Verdict:
At my most unbiased, Proud Mary is a rousing
8 out of 10!
+An intelligently written female lead
+A female action star that dresses sensibly for battle
+A strong narrative about motherhood
+A movie that features black love while not boiling the characters down to “Black woman”, “black thug”, “black crime boss”, etc.
+Jahi Di’Allo Winston is very believable showing the many facets of Danny’s character
+Great action scenes!
+Enhanced by even greater quiet moments of love, fear, hope, sorrow and more
+A multi-faceted female lead
-Wait is Benny the kid or is Danny the kid? And who was Walter again? Similar names and names you hear once or twice but are expected to remember an hour later
-A fair amount of hinting at plots that you may wish were explored deeper
-Mary’s tool kit is unfortunately under used
-The narrative rushes a bit much from point to point
-DON’T STOP FOR HUGS IN ENEMY TERRITORY!
In case you hadn’t noticed, I thoroughly enjoyed Proud Mary (and pre-ordered my blu-ray before even leaving the theater), and I sincerely hope you do too! Sony is doing nothing to market this film (I didn’t even know it existed until opening night when my father asked if I was going to see it) and that’s beyond sad and disappointing. I see a ton of critics slamming this movie for things they praise in other films, and, let’s be honest…
There’s not a lot of reasons why.