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Proud Mary
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by Jay Seaver

"Keeps on turning well enough."
3 stars

"Proud Mary" is not a terrific movie even by the blaxploitation throwback standards it's clearly striving for; though it sets the situation up with laudable efficiency on the way to a trim 85-minute running time, it still gets bogged down with boring gangster stuff and jettisons large chunks of that when it's not needed any more. It would be a bit of a drag if it didn't embrace being a pulpy B-movie both in size and willingness to dive straight into action; the sometimes-sluggish scenes where guns aren't being fired don't bury how well it works when it gets down to business.

The Mary of the title (Taraji P. Henson) is a killer working for Boston gangster Benny (Danny Glover) - like a daughter to him even though she and his son Tom (Billy Brown) are no longer together - and when she dispatched a Jamaica Plain bookie for him a year earlier, she made an orphan out of his son Danny (Jahi Di'Allo Winston). Danny's been running errands for an Eastern European creep who goes by "Uncle" (Xander Berkeley), and when a guilt-ridden Mary finally catches up with Danny and tries to get Uncle to back off… Well, it goes badly enough for Uncle's boss Luka (Rade Serbedzija) to feel retribution is called for unless Benny can deliver the one responsible - and Benny puts Mary in charge of finding that someone. Benny's money man Walter (Neal McDonough) looks like a good patsy, but there's no way it will be that easy.

It's not a bad plot, really, and given that the film is shorter than most that get a theatrical release, there's a good chance that it was cut to heck at some point - Mary framing Walter is basically one sentence of "who else?" and for someone really hell-bent on revenge, Luka pretty much vanishes when the movie has other fish to fry. What the three credited writers and director Babak Najafi are going for here is pretty clear, and maybe given a little more room to breathe and a more charismatic cast of characters, they'd be able wring a twisty crime story that really gets into Mary feeling disillusioned and recognizing how she's pushed Danny ointo the same path as her. Instead, the outline is clear but the details are drab.

Why does it go flat? Tough to say, but a large part seems to be that what should be a strong supporting cast never delivers as much as they should. It feels like the movie could get a lot more out of Danny Glover as Benny, in particular; his whispering delivery would make a nifty contrast to the obvious bullying of Rade Serbedzija's Luka if he ever flipped the switch from (grand)paternal to sinister, but that never quite happens. Neither Neal McDonough nor Xander Berkeley gets much screen time to show off their talents for sleaze, and Billy Brown is fine, but kind of generic, one of a lot of handsome guys with no hair on his head or fat on his body that's as smart and suspicious as the movie needs but doesn't seem to have been given much chance to show personal charm as Tom.

He's also the most obvious case of how the chemistry between Taraji P. Henson and everyone else often seems like her trying to carry both ends. The audience is told that they used to be a thing but scenes play as her saying "ugh" with feeling even though he's just blandly stated that there might still be something there. Henson's never making less than a full effort - when given clumsy lines, she makes them something Mary has difficulty getting out, and when charged with adding an exclamation point to an action scene, she snarls enough to hit harder than the headshot that follows. This won't be her signature role, but she gives it what it needs, and while her chemistry with Jahi Di'Allo Winston isn't perfect, the pair of them are able to make it work as Mary and Danny not quite knowing what to make of each other.

All of that is stuff that happens between people getting shot, and you can't blame the filmmakers for wanting to just get straight to the action, though - they're on fairly solid ground there. Henson and Brown can move through a shot with authority and the filmmakers have at least been watching the John Wick movies to know that's what people like in action movies of this scale; director Babak Najafi seldom cuts to hide things and the cast and stuntpeople execute good combos whether working hand-to-hand or shooting across a room. They may not always nail it, but they get closer than you might expect. The big finish lets the audience see a bit of squandered potential in that if they're going to break out the Tina Turner, you should probably sync the action to it Baby Driver-style, the result is an energetic-enough rampage to get the audience leaving with a smile.

Sure, putting Tina on the soundtrack at that point is kind of like entering a cheat code - the audience has been waiting for it since the title and seventies-style opening credits, just as they've been waiting for Mary to let loose - but it's one that works, so that even if the movie has a tough time getting there, it does at least go out on the note it's supposed to.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31211&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/14/18 13:20:59
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USA
  12-Jan-2018

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Australia
  12-Jan-2018




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