There’s a scene near the end of Proud Mary where the action-thriller hints at just how much fun it could’ve been. Taraji P. Henson is the titular assassin, and she storms into a warehouse on a rescue mission, guns blazing, tires squealing, and Tina Turner blasting. As Tina sings and urges her to keep on burning, our Mary mows down bad guy after bad guy, taking out henchmen with a ruthless, determined efficiency that would impress even John Wick.
It’s the best and most exhilarating moment in an otherwise paint-by-numbers B-movie. Henson’s Mary is a lifelong assassin, indebted to the Boston mob that took her in as a young runaway and taught her how to shoot a gun. After completing a hit, Mary realizes that her target’s young son Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) is now an orphan, and her guilt leads her to spend the next year keeping tabs on him. When Danny runs afoul of a rival Russian mob, Mary rescues him, kickstarting a reluctant parent-child relationship between the hardened assassin and the young, defiant kid.
As an added complication, Mary’s hotheaded decision to take out key members of the Russian mob sparks a turf war between the Russians and Mary’s own “family,” led by her boss/surrogate father Benny (Danny Glover). As Mary tries to keep her involvement in the Russian murders a secret from Danny — while dodging the suspicion of Benny’s son/Mary’s ex-boyfriend Tom (Billy Brown) — she starts to wonder whether she can ever get out of the game.
Proud Mary could’ve been an enjoyable guilty pleasure — the film opens with a ’70s-inspired credit sequence that nods to its blaxploitation roots — but its stale script and baffling directorial choices hold it back. Every conversation between Mary and Danny is filled with cloying clichés, and director Babak Najafi (London Has Fallen) makes action sequences that are uninspired and difficult to follow. The film’s only bright spot is Mary herself: Henson brings a haunted intensity to her troubled protagonist, whether she’s grappling with the weight of Mary’s past or spitting badass, action-movie one-liners. Henson clearly has the swagger, charm, and ferocity to make one hell of an action star. She deserves a movie that does her talents justice. C+