When Screen Gems debuted the trailer for “Proud Mary” last July (a full six months before release) the Taraji P. Henson-starring blaxploitation riff seemed like an easy hit — a female “John Wick” or an African-American “Atomic Blonde.” But this week, the distributor has seemingly dumped the film in theaters with little fanfare, hardly promoting it and not bothering to screen for critics. With such an appealing title, star, genre and song, what could have gone wrong?
As it turns out, the filmmakers of “Proud Mary” — director Babak Najafi, writers Steve Antin, John Stuart Newman and Christian Swegal — skimped on the crucial elements of story, character and action. After a beautifully designed ’70s-style opening title sequence, we discover that “Proud Mary” isn’t a retro action thriller at all, but a staid family drama, and an incredibly boring one at that.
That’s not the fault of Henson, who gives us a character that deserves a far better showcase than this. Her Mary is a Boston hit woman working for “the Family,” an organized crime outfit headed by Benny Spencer (Danny Glover) and his son Tom (Billy Brown), one of Mary’s former flames. She’s at once empathetic and cold-blooded; she sports platinum wigs, swills Hennessy while treating her wounds and wields a firearm with aplomb.
But we’re not given enough of that. Instead, there’s scene after scene of serious, intense discussion between Mary and Tom, Mary and Benny, and Mary and Danny (Jahi Di'Allo Winston), a young urchin delivering drugs for the rival Russian mob. Mary scoops him off the streets like a guardian angel, but she’s got an ulterior motive — she offed his dad a year ago and is plagued by guilt.
Murderous Mary’s mothering instincts throw off the delicate truce between the Family and the Russians. You’d expect all hell to break loose, but nope, it’s more serious conversations, sprinkled with just enough thrills to whet but not satisfy one’s appetite for more. It’s ultimately a disappointment because the promise of “Proud Mary’s” early marketing wasn’t delivered, and there’s no pride to be taken in the final product.
Rating: R, for violence
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: In general release