Proud Mary (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
There comes a point in the film when the protagonists’ situation turns so desperate that the assassin (Taraji P. Henson) feels the need to instruct the boy (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) she welcomed into her home what he must do when the possibility of her ending up dead becomes reality. It is in moments like this that the action-thriller shines because it shows that it is capable of disarming the viewers at a drop of a hat. Far too many pictures under the genre are only concerned about constructing elaborate shootouts; making the biggest, baddest explosions; and amplifying the volume as to bombard the eardrums. From this perspective, “Proud Mary” is refreshing because at times it is not afraid to show the characters as humans with flaws and fears, sense of humor, goals outside of what they do.
I notice performances in horror films when an actor chooses to play the role as if she were in a completely different genre. Here, Henson is an action movie but she portrays the character as if Mary were in a dramatic piece. She wears it in the hooded eyes and the wounded, seen-it-all expressions on her face, even through her strong but tired body language. We wonder if Mary is tired of killing, that perhaps she has recognized that a part of herself dies every time she puts a bullet in someone else’s skull.
This creates an interesting contrast because although the screenplay by John S. Newman and Christian Swegal does not bother to detail or explore our heroine’s past, we wonder about it anyway. In order for the viewer to be invested in a character completely, it is crucial that we recognize her existence, her history, outside of the film’s scope or running time. Henson choosing to play Mary as having a past in a genre that usually does not require it is a true sign of experience. I wished the writing were up to her level of ambition and dedication, possessing that willingness to put in extra just because.
The picture suffers from its lack of restraint when it comes to employing score during thrilling or dramatic moments. Particularly painful is its usage in the latter situation because it drowns out not only the varying cadences in voices or how certain lines are delivered but also the important pauses and silences. In other words, the inappropriate addition of sound takes away from what should be raw confessions that are painful or scary for a character to admit or embrace. As for the former, there are occasions when all that we need to hear are gunshots, hot bullets hitting the ground, boots scraping the wooden floor from desperate attempts at escape. Sometimes less really is more.
The only highly effective use of music is when Tina Turner’s titular song explodes during the jolt of electricity that is the climax. It is such a joyous three-minute sequence that even the editing and sound design adapt to the rhythm of the soundtrack and images. It highlights how effective Mary can be as a hired killer with a newfound purpose. But it never goes so far that we get the impression she is invincible. In fact, we are challenged to hold our breath till the end because as shootouts wind down, tighter shots from the chest up are utilized in an alarming rate. Usually, this technique heralds a shocking twist.
Directed by Babak Najafi, “Proud Mary” may not be as loud or action-packed compared to other hitman movies, but I enjoyed its elliptical approach in tracing the expected three-arc structure. And with the highly watchable lead making sure that the character is believable at every narrative turn, what results is a solid entertainment for the open-minded.