'Proud Mary': Film Review

A dud crime flick that barely even tries to muster the blaxploitation cool its title sequence evokes.

Taraji P. Henson plays a killer caring for the boy she orphaned in Babak Najafi's follow-up to 'London Has Fallen.'

Its heroine may be proud, but the same can't be said for Screen Gems, which is doing everything it can to keep Proud Mary under a bushel. No press screenings were held; reportedly, even junketeers doing interviews with cast members had to write their puff pieces without having seen the film. In commercial release, Thursday's early-bird screenings were held far, far from neighborhoods known to harbor film critics. At one such theater in Brooklyn, an auditorium the size of Montana held fewer than a dozen paying customers at showtime. Opening weekend likely will benefit from the popularity of star Taraji P. Henson, but the drop-off should be steep for Babak Najafi's uninspired crime flick about a hitwoman caring for the boy she made an orphan.

Henson plays the titular Mary, a killer in the inner circle of a Boston gang led by Danny Glover's Benny. A year earlier, while assassinating a gambler who owed Benny money, Mary realized the man had a son in the room next door. She left without letting the boy see her and, guilt-ridden, kept watch on him from afar.

Well, guilt-ridden up to a point. She didn't care enough to rescue the newly minted orphan when he fell in with a Russian gangster who beat him routinely; she didn't keep him from running drugs; she didn't feed him when he went hungry. Only once young Danny (Jahi Di'Allo Winston) winds up unconscious in an alley does she come to his aid.

Not long after setting Danny up in her luxe bachelorette pad, Mary goes to confront the goon he works for. Though the movie revolves around Mary's cool, she loses it here, killing him and his crew — then acts surprised when, the next day, this threatens to start a war between Benny's clan and that of the dead goon. Now she must try to keep Benny and his son Tom (Billy Brown) from realizing she's the cause of their woes while simultaneously hiding the nature of her job from young Danny. (A tip for human beings who were never children: If you have a closet full of automatic weapons, the fastest way to get a boy to find it is to leave the house after warning him, in your most "I mean it!" voice, not to enter your bedroom.)

The mob-war stuff here could not possibly be more rote, even with the revelation that Tom and Mary used to be lovers. What the screenplay counts on is that putting the killer in charge of a tyke is novel enough to win us over. (Sadly, viewers can be counted on not to have seen Gloria — either the good one or the one with Sharon Stone — and the more recent Leon: The Professional may also be obscure to them.)

But the script completely fails to transmute the vulnerability and anger Orphan Danny feels into love via extended scenes of smart-ass bickering. The boy gives Mary lip; Mary gives him what-for; repeat until someone realizes there's not much chemistry between Henson and Winston and gives up.

Iran-born, Sweden-raised Najafi made a competent entry into the crime field with Easy Money: Hard to Kill, the second film in Sweden's Snabba Cash series. That twisty finance-and-crime flick was less about big action set-pieces than duplicity, scheming and guilt. Hollywood is proving less fertile ground for him. After directing London Has Fallen, he here shows little aptitude for staging massive shootouts or milking an ambush for drama. Proud Mary's climactic bloodbath, in which we finally hear that inevitable Ike & Tina Turner cover of the Creedence Clearwater Revival tune, plays like a half-hearted music video made to advertise a more exciting film.

The lyrics of that song may urge Proud Mary to keep on, but all evidence here says she should call it a day — letting the actress who plays her find some more worthy franchise if she really wants to be an action hero.

Production company: Screen Gems
Distributor: Screen Gems
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Jahi Di'Allo Winston, Billy Brown, Danny Glover, Neal McDonough, Xander Berkeley, Margaret Avery
Director: Babak Najafi
Screenwriters: Steve Antin, John Stuart Newman, Christian Swegal
Producers: Tai Duncan, Paul Schiff
Executive producers: Glenn S. Gainor, Taraji P. Henson
Director of photography: Dan Laustsen
Production designer: Carl Sprague
Costume designer: Deborah Newhall
Editor: Evan Schiff
Composer: Fil Eisler
Casting director: Nancy Nayor

Rated R, 88 minutes