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PROUD MARY: Bow Down Before Queen Taraji

Proud Mary would be nothing special if it did not star Taraji P. Henson. But it does, and as a result it stands out like a beam of sunshine piercing the dull grey murk that is January at the movies.

PROUD MARY: Bow Down Before Queen Taraji

I’m not going to beat around the bush: I love Taraji P. Henson . With magnetic charisma and an incredibly expressive face that is just meant for close-ups, she feels simultaneously like an old Hollywood throwback (as Norma Desmond would say, they had faces then) and an incredibly modern star.

She is best known for playing Cookie Lyon, the fierce matriarch of a music dynasty, on Fox’s hit show Empire , but throughout her career she has shined in a wide variety of roles, including a pregnant prostitute in love with a pimp-turned-rapper ( Hustle & Flow ), a loving mother to a child aging in reverse ( The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ), and a brilliant mathematician who aided the United States in the Space Race ( Hidden Figures ).

It feels like Henson is capable of anything on-screen, so it’s not really a surprise to see her bring her talents to a role so often embodied by white men: that of the action star. Proud Mary , directed by Babak Najafi ( London Has Fallen) from a screenplay written by John Stuart Newman and Christian Swegal, casts Henson as a character that we’ve seen many times before – but never like this.

And while the film is as flawed as one would expect from a thriller released in January, it’s impossible to overstate the satisfaction that comes with seeing a 47-year-old woman of color show the Hollywood hero fraternity that anything they can do, she can do better.

Working For The Man Every Night And Day

Henson plays Mary, a hitwoman for a Boston crime family run by Benny ( Danny Glover , who feels like he’s acting in an entirely different film than the rest of the cast – more on that later) and his son, Tom ( Billy Brown , best known as Viola Davis’ on-and-off arm candy on How To Get Away With Murde r).

After carrying out a hit on a bookie, Mary realizes that the man she killed had a young son, Danny ( Jahi Di’Allo Winston ). Riddled with guilt, Mary keeps an eye on Danny as the orphaned boy gets involved with an abusive gangster known as Uncle. One thing leads to another, until Mary’s emotions get the better of her: in order to protect Danny, she carries out an unsanctioned hit on Uncle and sends the Boston underworld into an uproar.

PROUD MARY: Bow Down Before Queen Taraji

source: Sony Pictures Entertainment

Mary doesn’t exactly seem like the mothering type, but she brings Danny into her home and attempts to clean up the mess she caused by killing Uncle without a full-blown gang war getting underway – and without Danny knowing exactly why she has taken such an interest in his well-being. However, her attempts to keep her involvement in Uncle’s murder a secret and to extract herself from her hitwoman life are rife with deadly complications, including but not limited to Tom, Mary’s ex-boyfriend and the heir to Benny’s throne.

Proud Mary Keep On Burning

I went into Proud Mary hoping that this could be Taraji P. Henson’s Atomic Blonde  – a stylish, original action flick with sharp dialogue worthy of its star. But once the film’s awesome Blaxploitation-inspired opening credits sequence ended, the truth became all too clear.

The film’s unfortunate script feels cobbled together from random scenes stolen from mediocre action flicks starring men like Liam Neeson and Gerard Butler (both of whom, coincidentally, have new films out this month); the story is predictable and the dialogue barely ever moves beyond cliche. Fortunately, Henson brings enough ruthless spirit to the role of Mary to render the film a lot more fun that it has any right to be.

PROUD MARY: Bow Down Before Queen Taraji

source: Sony Pictures Entertainment

Clad in a series of skin-hugging black outfits, her lips pursed and impossibly geometric eyebrows arched, Henson looks positively iconic. It’s hard to properly convey how refreshing it is to see her  play out the “bandaging my battle wound over the bathroom sink” scene that is so quintessential to these kinds of movies while chugging a bottle of Hennessy and showing off her own lower-back tattoos without seeing it for yourself. Suffice to say, she makes Mary more relatable and real than your typical trained killer. The film’s climactic shootout sequence, set to Tina Turner ’s anthemic cover of the titular song, elicited satisfied applause and exaltations of “Proud Mary!” from the audience I was part of, it was so exhilarating.

It’s no surprise that Henson is her usual remarkable self, but the real treat is the way she’s matched beat for beat by Winston as the streetwise Danny. The two of them have a sparkling chemistry with enough snarky humor to keep their relationship from getting too stereotypically sappy. Less appealing are all of the adult men in the film, whose characters amount to barely more than ciphers. Literally every white man in the film (there aren’t many, though that isn’t a bad thing) is sporting an over-the-top Boston accent that sounds too silly to be taken seriously, while also being literally the only thing about the film that signifies its Boston setting.

PROUD MARY: Bow Down Before Queen Taraji

source: Sony Pictures Entertainment

Brown brings his usual muscle-bound toughness to the role of Tom, but the character itself is bland, boring and no match for Mary. But the oddest misfire in Proud Mary is the legendary Glover, who sounds like he’s phoning in his performance as Benny both figuratively and literally; every line he speaks is overly enunciated and sounds as though it were recorded in a separate room than the rest of the cast. It’s something about the acoustics, though exactly what, I couldn’t say – only that this weird technical glitch is distracting enough to keep Benny from ever being truly menacing.

Proud Mary: Conclusion

Proud Mary would be nothing special if it did not star Taraji P. Henson. But it does, and as a result it stands out like a beam of sunshine piercing the dull grey murk that is January at the movies. It is not brilliant, but it is definitely a lot of fun.

What do you think? Are you willing to give an action movie starring Cookie Lyon herself a shot? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Proud Mary was released in the U.S. on January 12, 2018 and will be released in the UK on March 23, 2018. You can find more international release dates here.

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Lee Jutton has directed short films starring a killer toaster, a killer Christmas tree, and a not-killer leopard. Her writing appears in publications such as Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture, Bitch Flicks, TV Fanatic, and Just Press Play. When not watching, making or writing about films, she can usually be found at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey.

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