The action thriller “Proud Mary” begins by trying to establish some retro cred, with a vintage Motown tune on the soundtrack (the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” not thematically apt but rhythmically bubbling nevertheless) and a title typeface that recalls the one used in the 1974 blaxploitation picture “Foxy Brown.” Under the credits, Taraji P. Henson, as the title character, showers, dresses, puts on makeup and selects a bright blond wig from her wardrobe. Oh, and she also selects a formidable-looking handgun from the formidable arsenal behind her wardrobe.
After which she goes on her mission, quickly dispatching a guy who barely gets a chance to gape at her wig. In a room elsewhere in the man’s apartment, she sees a young boy, headphones blocking his hearing, obliviously playing a video game. This gives her pause.
But she doesn’t intervene in the kid’s life, not just yet. Instead, a year goes by, and Mary discovers the kid, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), is a runner for a Boston drug dealer referred to only as Uncle. After discovering the boy wounded and starving in an alley, she takes an unorthodox approach to adoption, rubbing out Uncle in a flash of anger.
“Proud Mary,” directed by Babak Najafi from a script by Steven Antin, John Stuart Newman and Christian Swegal, is a rather more somber affair than other movies in the same tradition. Although the plot mechanics are no more or less implausible than any such genre film. Mary is a hit woman for one drug cartel, Uncle was an operative for a rival one, and the scenario eventually spirals into a minor morass of misidentified killers and lethal paybacks.
But Henson, ever simmering, takes Mary’s moral conundrum very seriously. Her expressive eyes and nuanced body language work well for the character; she can put across a major change in attitude just by shifting a hip. The script, though, doesn’t give her a whole lot of material with which to credibly enact her character’s crisis. Her exchanges with Benny (Danny Glover), the drug kingpin who took her under his wing, or with Tom (Billy Brown), Benny’s son, heir and an ex of Mary’s, provide some idea of a potentially richer movie.
By the end, “Proud Mary” is of course obliged to hew to the prerogatives of its genre, with a warehouse action sequence scored to a Tina Turner version of the title song. The over-the-top nature of the sequence (Mary’s car gets shot up enough it could double as a sieve) is not served well by Najafi’s execution. The CGI bullet holes that dot the various boxes and crates on the set look like bad Photoshop.