A line of dialogue in director Babak Najafi’s “Proud Mary” (*** OUT OF ****) sums up the film: ““You stay ready, you ain’t gotta GET ready.” Clocking in at 89 energetic minutes, this breezy but bullet-riddled, B-movie crime thriller doesn’t squander a second. Najafi’s neo-Blaxploitation bloodbath evokes memories of African-American actress Pam Grier’s black gal on the rampage classics: “Coffey” (1973), “Foxy Brown” (1974), and “Friday Foster” (1975). Violence ignites this fast-paced tale, fuels it through the middle, and concludes it with a bang! A double-digit body count piles up between dialogue scenes, while the police are nowhere in sight to slow things down. Serving as the executive producer and lead actress, “Person of Interest” actress Taraji P. Henson plays a professional killer with no qualms about who she riddles with lead. Basically, she works for a seasoned Boston mob boss, Benny (Danny Glover of the “Lethal Weapon” franchise), and she is one of Benny’s many assassins that take care of his business. Just as it reeks of gun smoke, “Proud Mary” reeks of formula, too. Meaning, few surprises crop up in the John Stuart Newman, Christian Swegal, and Steve Antin screenplay. Neither Newman nor Swegal have any impressive writing credits. On the other hand, Antin wrote the remake of “Gloria” (1999), a yarn about a gun-toting woman with a heart of gold who saved an adolescent in jeopardy. Antin must have known what Henson and Iranian helmer Najafi wanted.
Despite its rampant predictability, “Proud Mary” is still a blast to watch, and Henson makes it watchable with dexterous gunplay. She mops the floor with her adversaries and then turns around and wipes out her own gang! Everything revolves around a 13-year-old drop-out, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), whose has been surviving on the streets since she shot his father dead. Now, Danny lives by the gun and pedals drugs for Russians. Danny cherishes few illusions about life. He knows if he doesn’t make sales, the Russians will bury him in a hole with no name. Our sharp-shooting heroine has her eye on young Danny, and she decides to intervene in his life. “Proud Mary” lives by the credo: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Najafi shows Mary shooting the works. She faces overwhelming numbers of pistol-packing mobsters. Such is her proficiency with firearms that she barely catches a scratch in all those gunfights. This one woman ventilates more guys than Charlize Theron did in “Atomic Blonde.”
As “Proud Mary” opens, we see the heroine going through her morning ritual. She showers, dresses, applies make-up, picks an appropriate wig, and then selects an awesome-looking automatic pistol from an arsenal concealed in a cabinet behind her wardrobe. She slides behind the wheel of a Maserati and cruises off to terminate a bookie with extreme prejudice. Mary is such a pro that she completes her assignment without a hitch, before she realizes the collateral damage. Although the bookie appeared to be alone; he had embezzled $100-thousand from Benny, Mary missed a youngster playing a video game in the same apartment. Headphones clamped onto his ears, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston of “The Upside”) was far too engrossed in his video game either to see or hear the gunplay. Afterward, Danny spends the next year or so in foster care, but the experience is far from amenable. Ultimately, he decides to go his own way. Meaning, he runs around selling smack for a Russian, Uncle (Xander Berkeley of “Terminator 2”), who keeps him jumping through hoops. One day before he collapses in an alley from malnutrition, Danny has to fire a couple of shots at a thief who had snatched his bag of drugs. The thief drops the bag, and Danny falls down and passes out. After a year of guilt building up in her about Danny’s predicament, Mary bundles the little boy into her car and takes him back to her place. She feeds him, buys him new clothes, and gives him a place to stay. However, she doesn’t want him nosing around her apartment. The only rule that Danny follows is not answering the door. Predictably, mischievous Danny checks out Mary’s closet and marvels at her arsenal of firepower. When he is admiring her weaponry, Mary confronts the Russian. She blasts him as well as two of his henchmen. Mary realizes later she has made a major error. Now, the Russians are maneuvering to go to war with Benny’s family. Mary doesn’t say anything about her off-the-books exploit. She tries to keep anybody from learning about Danny, but the truth eventually comes out. At the same time, Tom has been looking high and low for Mary. He is shocked to find Danny on Mary’s premises. Benny has arranged a sit-down conference between the Russian crime boss, Luca (Rade Serbedzija of “Batman Begins”), but the competing crime families don’t patch up their problems.
“Proud Mary” features several strong performances. Taraji P. Henson dominates this thriller from start to finish. A risk-taking actress game for challenges, Henson is believable in a variety of roles. She has portrayed a number of characters. She was a pregnant hooker devoted to a pimp/rapper in “Hustle & Flow”; an affectionate mom to a strange child in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”; a luminous mathematician helping NASA send astronauts into space in “Hidden Figures”; and a long-range, gimlet-eyed sniper in “Smokin’ Aces.” Danny Glover isn’t cut from the same cloth as Scarface, but he is willing to pull a trigger as a mob boss. Adolescent actors can make or break a serious movie, and Jahi Di’Allo Winston is credible as a homeless kid on the prowl. The moments that Henson and Winston have together constitute the film’s most interesting scenes as these two bond. The casting of the Russian killers is what you’d expect, and Rade Serbedzija registers as a heavy-duty antagonist. “Proud Mary” dwells on theme of redemption, and our heroine proves that she doesn’t need a man as much as another bullet.