Proud Mary

***

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Proud Mary
"Less a knowing subversion of genre than a loving homage to it."

Proud Mary sets its colours out pretty early: funk soundtrack, that palette of yellow orange and brown that creates a lush wood-panelled shag-carpeted sense of the Seventies. Underneath mellow bass is Taraji P Henson, kettle-bell push-ups, immaculately dressed, made-up, coiffured - and packing a silenced silver semiautomatic.

Firmly in what we could call B-movie territory, Proud Mary is a tale of gangland redemption, close enough to 'hit-(wo)man with a conscience' terrain that we could mention unstoppable forces like John Wick or immovable objects like the Terminator or dapper deadliness like Atomic Blonde without fear.

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More complicated than the film were elements of its production and distribution. Director Babak Najafi's CV includes two differently daft sequels, London Has Fallen and Snabba Cash 2. The writing team includes John Stuart Newman (episodes of the Get Shorty tv series, and several hundred episodes of US soap stalwart Days Of Our Lives), a d├ębut feature script for Christian Swegal, and Steve Antin who's probably most famous for acting in The Goonies and Sweet Sixteen and most infamous for writing and directing the Cher/Christina Aguilera film Burlesque.

It had (if I recall correctly) a week or so in UK cinemas at the start of 2018, a decision perhaps indicative of the confidence its distributors (who also produced) had in it. It's got a great cast - Henson was one of the best things about stealth-cyberpunk man-is-the-real-monster-of-the-week show Person Of Interest, even before her role in Empire, and Jahi Di'Allo Winston's Danny is a really strong early performance from a young actor. Rounding out bad-guy Boston are turns from familiar faces including Danny Glover and definite 'That Guy' Neal McDonough whose role (scarce more than a cameo) illustrates the dangers of jogging.

There are some good moments - the chemistry between Henson and Winston as they get hot dogs in the park feels genuine, even if only one of them knows that they're scoping out a target. The way their relationship develops as the secrets Mary is keeping about each of them are revealed feels good too. There are credible action sequences - the shoot-out that turns Mary's good intentions into a bloody mess is well framed, literally so - it's triggered by her sight of a reflection. It's one of a variety of production details that build to a particular aesthetic - wood-panelled this, tailored that, all part of an anaesthetic Hennessey aesthetic, Mary's even been able to order from the bad guy shop so her walk-in closet has a flush-fitted gun-rack that would make Mr & Mrs Smith envious.

Other elements are less strong. There's a weird element to the action, good though it is, where digital post-production is used for some muzzle flashes and the like that seems slightly off. There are times when it's bang on though - the quick splatter of headshots against a translucent curtain reminded me of a moment of off-screen violence from The Limey.

Danny Glover is good, but though his role is important it doesn't quite feel like he's getting involved. It's hard to put my finger on, but there are times on screen when he seems clearly invested (Sorry To Bother You) and there are times on screen when he seems to have made an investment decision (improbable upper reaches of insomnia cable fodder Waffle Street).

That said, it still works. I enjoyed it. I went into it with some expectation of entertainment and received it. It's less a knowing subversion of genre than a loving homage to it, even if one that was assembled by committee. There's already a Jackie Brown, a Shaft remake, but until Proud Mary there wasn't a film that creates the hope that you'll get a climactic gun-fight soundtracked by Tina Turner's cover of the Creedence song and featuring a Maserati, and now that we've got it it delivers.

It's got technical chops - cinematography by Dan Laustsen is crisp and grounded, a realism the frequent del Toro collaborator is adept at. In a somewhat woolly underworld it helps maintain suspension of disbelief, and his time as DoP on John Wick 2 probably better serves the warehouse fight than his time on Shape Of Water serves the cooking of eggs in Mary's luxuriously appointed apartment. Fil Eisler's score is competing with a slew of Seventies soul classics, but still holds its own. It is, however, another good part in a film full of them, and like the rest one that's in good company if not necessarily perfect unity. I am, in fact, minded of those hot dogs - and not just because I've not yet had breakfast - their ordered with 'the works', and twice - and that is, perhaps, Proud Mary. All sorts of good things in combination, piled high, but cheap, ephemeral, quintessentially American, and probably best not to pry too deeply into the production thereof. It's no Ratatouille, no Fried Green Tomatoes, but it's filling fare nonetheless - you may not leave spiritually nourished, but if you're in the right mood it'll definitely hit the spot.

Reviewed on: 11 Mar 2019
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Proud Mary packshot
A hit woman working for an organised crime family in Boston finds her life turned around by a boy whose path she crosses when a hit goes bad.

Director: Babak Najafi

Writer: John Stuart Newman, Christian Swegal

Starring: Taraji P Henson, Billy Brown, Jahi Di'Allo Winston

Year: 2018

Runtime: 89 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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