See, this right here is why I don’t like people going “you have to support this movie, it’s an action flick with a middle-aged black female lead!” And like okay, I want to support that, but you know what I want to support more? Movies that don’t suck. Surely, what use gaining diversity if it be in really shit movies?
Proud Mary stars Taraji P. Henson as Mary (possibly Mary Proud, but probably not). She’s an assassin, but one of those movie assassins who is super-professional and amoral enough to remorselessly kill dozens of people at the drop of a hat, but also just waiting to melt into a pot of paternal affection for the right orphan.
And in the opening scene, she makes her own orphan, taking out a mark before realizing that his teenage son Danny is in the other room. One year later, she finds that Danny has become a drug courier for an abusive Fagin type played by a Russian-accented Xander Berkeley (thanks for being the goto baddies in all movies like these, Russians). Wanting to protect him, she tries to smack some sense into Berkeley, but things go wrong and she ends up taking out his entire operation in one of too-few perfunctory action sequences.
(Plot hole: why does it take a year for Mary to seek out Danny? Was she periodically checking in with him? It doesn’t seem like it. And she doesn’t come across him by chance, but deliberately goes out to find him. So what suddenly compels her to check in on him?)
The Russians blame Mary’s Mob (Danny Glover, Billy Brown, Neal McDonough), starting a turf war that her fraction tries to avert/win as Mary takes in the recalcitrant Danny.
Not a bad premise, if cliched as hell, and to the movie’s credit, but Henson and the actor playing Danny are really good in their scenes together. Henson, as those of us who watched Person of Interest might remember, is great as both the cranky but warm-hearted maternal figure and the take-no-shit badass.*
Unfortunately, this movie had to be hacked down within an inch of its life in the editing room. Scenes are chopped up worse than most Steamed Ham memes. Dialogue exchanges go by like a book with no formatting. It’s so cut up that the ending of the movie plays over the closing credits like it’s playing on TBS and we have to wrap this up so a Big Bang Theory rerun can play. And, because Mary is keeping her head down to avoid being fingered as the person responsible for the unsanctioned hit, entire scenes happen with our badass lead standing in the corner, hoping no one notices her.
Now, I’m not a huge blaxploitation fan, but wasn’t a big part of the appeal watching people like Richard Roundtree and Pam Grier dominate the room? You know, the social lowborn going among their supposed betters and not only winning, but humiliating their opposition with their smarts, their skill, and their style? What’s the point of doing a blaxploitation throwback if our lead doesn’t get to be a cool-as-shit badass?
This guy sure wasn’t circumspect and careful in choosing his words.
Also, not to put too fine a point on it, but where’s the sex appeal? In 2018, shouldn’t a blaxploitation heroine be kicking a parade of hotties out of her bed? We get endless sequences of Henson gussying herself up, but the only sexuality is her dealing with a possessive ex-boyfriend. Okay, fine, hashtag MeToo, but does anyone go to a blaxploitation movie to nod sagely as sexual harassment is decried?
Well, the fact is this really isn’t much of a blaxploitation movie at all. Aside from a funky credits sequence, a Motown soundtrack, and playing the eponymous song during an action scene at the end, this could’ve been a generic crime thriller that some fan edited into a blaxploitation movie as a joke. Which is a shame, because the idea of Henson playing a badass hitwoman in a crime world populated by character actors like Xander Berkeley and Neal McDonough is do damn fun. But you just get this movie, where McDonough has one dialogue scene and then Henson assassinates him in an ‘awesome action scene’ where she comes up behind him while he’s jogging and shoots him in the back. What’s even the point?
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
*SPOILER: I can’t even give this movie full credit for the Mary-Danny storyline, as they whiff the ending by having Danny imply that his dad was an abuser, thus clearing the way for Mary to adopt him no strings attached. Shit, if that’s the resolution to all this drama, what was the point? Why not just have it turn out that Mary didn’t kill the guy at all, but he slipped on a banana peel and broke his neck?