‘Proud Mary’ Film Review: Taraji P. Henson Shoulda Kept Her Good Job in the City

An all-male writing and directing team reduces a lady assassin’s femininity to lipstick and maternal instincts

Proud Mary
Dana Starbard/Sony Pictures

The action-drama “Proud Mary” exists mostly for its climactic fight sequence, in which Taraji P. Henson’s avenging assassin shoots a bunch of bad guys and occasionally crushes them with her Maserati while a sped-up Tina Turner wails, “We’re rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river.”

It doesn’t really work, not least because the showdown takes place in a rundown warehouse district in Boston, not on a boat. At least the discordance is fun; you can feel the filmmakers reaching for something new, even if the sequence’s ultimate ineffectiveness is so instinctive you can feel it in your bones. Unfortunately, any attempt at freshness is quarantined to those couple of minutes.

“Proud Mary” did not screen for critics, nor should it have. It’s a copy of a copy of a mediocre original, with the drab aesthetics of a TV movie and the emotional hollowness of an infomercial. Ostensibly about a hired killer (the Halloween wigs and running-in-stilettos kind) who decides to reclaim her femininity, the picture is sunk by its all-male writing and directing team’s narrow conception of womanhood as lipstick and maternal instincts. (“London Has Fallen” helmer Babak Najafi directs; the screenplay is credited to Steve Antin, John Stuart Newman, and Christian Swegal.) Being a mercenary has never looked so cheesy.

We’re rarely allowed inside Mary’s head, so every major decision — like the one to leave her adoptive crime family — is a head-scratching surprise. The POV character is preteen Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston, “Feed the Beast”), a black orphan who delivers drugs for an Eastern European gangster named Uncle (Xander Berkeley).

Mary executed Danny’s father a year ago, so she guiltily keeps tabs on the little boy like any decent person who makes her living murdering people would. When Danny ends up on the streets after falling out of his boss’s favor, she brings the child to her home, bumps off Uncle, and inadvertently starts a gang war.

Henson and Winston do share a few moments of mutual cautious vulnerability, which gives the lead-up to the inevitable revelation that Mary orphaned him some desperately needed frisson. But Mary is mostly occupied carrying out the orders of her employer/surrogate father Benny (a stilted Danny Glover) and his smitten stepson Tom (Billy Brown, “How to Get Away with Murder”) while figuring out how to quit the slaying biz.

Far from the Blaxploi-liciousness promised by the marketing, “Proud Mary” is ponderously melodramatic when not mind-numbingly bland. Then there are the Filmmaking 101 mistakes, like the choppy editing and inept lighting, which excessively cut up the performances or prevent us from making out facial expressions altogether. The action scenes are so aloof and stylized that they primarily serve to highlight the desperate heart-tugging of the rest of the film.

But the greatest disappointment may be Henson’s squishy, physically unconvincing performance. We’re supposed to believe that Mary is a killing machine with a heart of gold, but, I dunno, that’s not a thing? Henson has Mary give away every lie on her face, and the actress doesn’t move like a highly trained athlete in her action scenes. Were they to meet, Cookie Lyon (Henson’s “Empire” character) would devour Mary, then toss off a delightfully catty bon mot about her predictable wardrobe. (“Another sheath dress, Boo Boo Killy?”)

I’d hoped “Proud Mary” would give us a new heroine worth rooting for. All it gave me was a laugh of recognition, when the woman in front of me at the Thursday night screening threw up her hands in disbelief at the ending.