Tuesday 27 March 2018

Proud Mary

A Mary’d Woman

Proud Mary
2018 USA Directed by Babak Najafi
UK cinema release print.

Okay, so this film seems to have had no publicity to speak of... at least over here in the UK. In fact, the first I’d heard of it was when it showed up in the listings at my local cinema last week. A quick look at the trailer showed that it seemed to be going for a stylistic flashback to those great female-centric blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. You know... those really cool pics like Coffy, Foxy Brown and Cleopatra Jones. However, a hasty scan of the user reviews on the IMDB showed that this was not a well liked movie, for the most part. In the end I decided to throw caution to the wind and give this one a go anyway and, you know what? I’m glad I did because I’m here to tell you now that it’s actually a nice little shoot ‘em up movie.

The plot of Proud Mary is a very slight twist on an old storyline. It’s basically John Cassavete’s Gloria in sheeps clothing, so to speak. That doesn’t make it any less valid as being worth an hour and a half of your time, though and the plot goes something like this. Mary, played absolutely brilliantly by an actress I’m not all that familiar with called Taraji P. Henson, is a ‘hit-woman’ for an organised crime family run by Benny (as played by Danny Glover) and his son, her ex squeeze, Tommy (played by Billy Brown). After an opening credits sequence, which I’ll get to in a minute, she carries out a ‘contract’ on a small time bookmaker but, when she investigates who else is in the house after shooting him, she sees (without him knowing it), the bookie’s young son Danny (played extremely well by Jahi Di'Allo Winston). She doesn't kill kids so she leaves him be but keeps tabs on him and, one year later, finds he is enslaved, badly beaten and doing drug runs for an arm of the same organisation she works for. She ‘rescues him’, bumps off his abusers and takes Danny in, without letting on to her boss what’s going on. However, this incident, which she doesn’t own up to, is the touch paper for a gang territory war and it’s a film about the lengths Mary goes to keeping her and Danny safe from, mostly, her own people.

So yeah, a clichéd plot but it’s done with a certain sense of style and a lot of competent film making so I really can’t see why a lot of people didn’t click with this one. There’s plenty of action and a nice look to it which is consistent all the way through. The suspense level is high throughout... although that may be because I personally find gangster films very uncomfortable to watch and, unless they were shot in the 1930s, I try to avoid them whenever I can. I think that goes back to my grammar school education as a kid because, frankly, I found school to be a training ground for hoodlums, thugs and crooks and I find the people walking the planet in real life these days much more threatening than anything you’d find in a horror movie (which, ironically, I find much more comfortable to watch).

I think the problem on this one for a certain section of the audience may be the tone of the piece. The trailer definitely has an early 1970s blaxploitation vibe and, when you get to the film itself, it also pushes that comparison when it comes to the wonderful opening credits sequence. It’s a basic ‘hot lady gets tooled up for an assignment’ style scene but with blazing seventies typography and an opening needle dropped song that practically screams the style of those bold pictures in no uncertain terms. However, after the opening titles, that kind of vibe only comes back with a few, well placed songs and it’s pretty much absent for the rest of the movie. Fil Eisler’s score is actually pretty good but it never really tries to catch those kinds of tones and I suspect that kind of musical doorway into the past was not part of the scoring brief, so to speak. Unfortunately, the score is only available on download as a stand alone listen... not as a proper CD... so it’s not something I’m likely to get to appraise properly in the near future.

That being said, the film is, mostly, not trying to be a 1970s homage but, perhaps, it is trying to re-establish that ‘strong black female lead’ style film for a modern marketplace and I’m all for that. Henson absolutely kills it as Mary and she has the kind of on screen personality and star quality to make this movie shine. She’s not trying to be Pam Grier or Tamara Dobson or anyone else in that kind of genre canon... but she is quite naturally wearing the mantle of their cinematic legacy without even trying. The result is an anti-hero you can root for and a character you can really believe in. Her chemistry with the kid is especially engaging and neither her nor the young feller in question have any problems with getting into some seriously emotional scenes during the course of the movie.

The film does pretty much all you could ask for and it has some great stuff going on visually here too (well... okay... I would like to have seen a little more of the main lead in a more sexploitative way but... yeah... ignore I said that, it would be politically incorrect of me to highlight that element of its visual heritage, surely?). It is a little less realistic in its portrayal of the ‘mob style’ shenanigans, however, in that it seems to be taking place in some kind of Hollywood la-la-land where no matter how much noisy shooting and bodies a character leaves behind, there is never any police presence in the film whatsoever. I mean, although a lot of the kills in this film are shown with various gunmen using silencers, a fair proportion of them also aren’t but, strangely, you never once hear so much as a siren throughout the course of the movie. So... yeah, that was a little weird.

Ultimately though, Proud Mary isn’t trying to be a close match to reality and the film exists in that special place where so many action thrillers like to dwell. It’s no big deal and the film is way more entertaining than some of the IMDB reviewers seem to be saying. Definitely a good time at the cinema if you’ve got nothing else on this week and probably something which would do quite well on the Blu Ray and DVD market too. Check this one out because, although I didn’t understand the title and its relevance to the character, it’s a well made action thriller when so many these days aren’t quite up to scratch. 

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