I do not remember a time before the character of the brutal assassin who discovers their moral compass and tries to retire felt like a terrible cliché. If such a time existed, it was decades before 2018. But clichés usually become clichés because they resonate with audiences, and all it takes to freshen one up are a couple of new twists. Proud Mary has just enough of them to make some satisfying out of very familiar material.

The plot is a modern riff on The Professional, with the ruthless hit man (or woman, in this case) who comes to protect and then care for a precocious orphan. That hit woman is Taraji P. Henson’s Mary, who, judging by her Maserati and glamorous wardrobe of lux leather jackets, has made a pretty good living working for a mob family in Boston headed by Danny Glover’s Benny. But financial comforts have come with a heavy emotional price. One year ago, Mary performed a contract killing only to discover her target had a son. Today, when the kid (Danny, played by the charismatic Jahi Di’Allo Winston) gets in trouble with some of Benny’s rivals, Mary takes him under her wing. That decision leads to unexpected consequences. Like, the kind of consequences that result in many people getting shot in the head.

It takes Proud Mary a while to get there, though. Much of its first half is more of an inaction movie, although there are some good scenes between Henson, Glover, and Billy Brown as Benny’s son (and Mary’s former lover) Tom. To a certain extent this is director Babak Najafi’s novel take on the retiring assassin formula; his film is as much a melodrama as a thriller. And Henson delivers a fully realized performance as Mary. So many of the grizzled movie hit men who have come before herare defined by their blank expressions and ruthless win-at-all-cost attitudes. They never express any sort of vulnerability, because macho action dudes are not supposed to feel vulnerable for any reason; that is part of their appeal.

Henson and Najafi take a refreshingly different route. Mary feels every death, particularly after she settles on retirement. When she performs the hit that sets the main storyline in motion, her immediate response is fear. Her occasional expressions of weakness and emotion make her a far more interesting assassin than the ones we see in most movies. It’s fun to watch her struggle with what she’s done and what she will have to do to survive, particularly because Henson takes the role seriously, and acts her guts out.

I just wouldn’t have minded if she acting her guts out a little bit less — or, better yet, aimed for the guts of a few more bad guys. There is one reasonably effective gunfight near the middle of the picture, and the ending delivers the requisite intensity. But that’s about all the excitement to speak of in an 88 minute film. Najafi deserves a certain amount of credit for crafting more nuanced characters than is expected in a movie like Proud Mary. But a movie like Proud Mary, particularly one that trades so heavily on blaxploitation iconography, could use a bit more grit and ferocity.

A few of Najafi’s formal choices are baffling; he uses the song “Proud Mary” in the worst possible way at the worst possible time. (It’s so bad it made my jaw drop while I involuntarily slapped my forehead.) On the whole though, this is a solidly satisfying crime picture, and certainly better than its early January release date and muted marketing would suggest. We’ve seen a lot of assassins who didn’t want to kill people anymore. But I’m pretty confident Mary is the first to drop lines like “News flash, a—hole: I am the mothering type!”


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