***Some small plot spoilers are in this review***
It’s hard to face the question begged by films such as Proud Mary, Sony Pictures’ newest action film that drew attention for its Black woman lead and subsequent lack of promotion: What do you do when a film you want to support falls short of your hopes? Or worse, what if it’s downright, well, bad? Such is the case with Proud Mary, a film so ridiculous that is, if one is to be honest, an early frontrunner to be one of the worst movies of the new year when weighed against many of our expectations.
The movie follows Mary, the drug muscle assassin with a heart of gold as exhibited by her maternal instinct to spare the life of a child during a hit. One year later she finds the boy she made an orphan – now a brusque preteen working for a rival drug cartel – and her guilt blends with love as her maternal instinct lends itself to her protectiveness of him. Mary takes him in and their relationship builds through his foul-mouthed-yet-endearing banter with Mary, played by a naturally charming-yet-no-nonsense Taraji P. Henson as they run through the checklist of the surrogate parent-meets-orphan meet cute: When’s the last time you ate? Mary asks Danny, played by Jahi Di’Allo Winston, as he eats too fast. What’s with all the questions, lady? But when Danny changes clothes, revealing his scars, Mary storms out the door to “teach him some manners,” referring to a man named “Uncle” who is a leader in the rival drug cartel for whom Danny worked. The rest can be summed up simply:
“Danny belongs to me,” Uncle says.
“Danny belongs to no one,” Mary replies, and kills Uncle and his men before running into her Maserati, the most conspicuous car of choice for a drug cartel hit-woman with weapons connected to a murder count north of a hundred people. Viewers are afforded a moment’s speculation – call it an audiences’ extension of good will – by assuming her impulsive yet planned confrontation is just a frivolous one, but it doesn’t last long. “I just fucked up,” she tells Danny, who was waiting outside in the Maserati. “Bad.” She started a drug cartel war between her family and their rivals, thrusting the plot forward as Mary plays ignorant to Uncle’s murder and hides her new surrogate son from the violent cartel family that would never approve of him.
A silly plot made worse in its bizarre exposition, Proud Mary is full of clichés that almost begin to feel deliberate, so hacky that you almost chance to believe the movie is self-aware, a parody of itself. By the end, Mary’s conflicts with her family – particularly her ex-boyfriend and heir to the drug cartel, Tom – are so corny that they nearly round the circle of “so bad it’s good,” the Price Is Right wheel stopping only one click short. The result is the wrong type of comedy, laughing at the movie instead of with it, as was the case with a few women dying laughing in the theater alongside me. The laughter begins in the second act, as you stop taking Proud Mary seriously after the first 30 minutes, and by its end your expectations are justly adapted from a sound screenplay with an A-List celebrity lead, to a straight-to-DVD movie from the 90s on par with daytime cable.
If you try to count the ridiculous components of Proud Mary’s plot you may likely lose count, lost in the woods of your own thoughts as you decipher what “ridiculous” even means in the context of a story where so little makes sense. She betrays her cartel family, yet entrusts a 12-year old with knowledge that would start a war, asking his promise not to tell; after causing a drug war she retaliates against their newfound rival with her ex-romantic partner Tom, Black Ops-style, like Navy SEALS infiltrating a foreign government safe house to “send a message” to the rival gang; she seems a highly trained and specialized agent but when she is eventually shot by one of the thousands of bullets that zoom around her, her medical care hilariously consists of a large bandage and a bottle of Hennessy. “I just need to take a nap” she says, faint and bleeding out, only to be fine a mere minutes later after what must have been one hell of a nap.
There are times when the plot and dialog converge so harmonically bad that you must believe it to be intentional, as that’s the only way to make sense of it even happening. When the time comes for Mary to stand up to her family at the height of her character arc and “get out the life” for good, drug kingpin Danny Glover rebukes her. “I own you and you work for me,” he says. “If you leave we will find you and the boy.” He might as well have added “you ungrateful bitch,” but that would be too excessive for the scene, only I’m just kidding, that really is an actual quote from the script.
We can be honest about Proud Mary because we love Taraji; because there’s no shortage of Black genius; because we want to unwind with a simple action movie after a long week. And with that mindset, I sincerely recommend Proud Mary and want everyone to see it when their time and bank account allows. But maybe on a plane though, as I would be hard pressed to call it “good,” or anything above one of the first contenders for a Razzie Award in 2018. Like the Issa Rae quote goes, I’m rooting for everybody Black, which for me means rooting for Black films to highlight our talent above embracing the bad ones in hopes for more. And unfortunately, overall, a $20 ticket to Proud Mary earns you audience with a Target $5 movie rack film that could be packaged 2-for-1 with Species 2.
It’s unfortunate that Sony felt the need to bury Proud Mary by its obvious lack of promotion, but even more unfortunate is that Proud Mary is indeed so bad that you would better expect to stumble across it on cable and let play because you assume it was from before Taraji was famous. If you do watch Proud Mary just make sure your expectations are right before you spend the time and money. My last suggestion: talk about it after with a few lighthearted friends, because the most fun I had at Proud Mary came from the audience members around me when our expectations synced together into the right place. Movies this absurd are even better after the credits roll and the lights turn on.