“Proud Mary” is an assassin-with-a-heart-of-gold action thriller in which the sizzle doesn’t match the steak (or, in this case, the low-grade VOD-and-cable-ready B–movie hamburger). The sizzle is all about the blazing guns and badass attitude — about the film’s neo-blaxploitation credits and allusion to the anarchic Ike and Tina Turner version of the title song, about its showy and efficient but ultimately rather routine action sequences, and about the doleful swagger of its star and executive producer, Taraji P. Henson, who knows how to shoot a bullet into somebody’s chest by adding that special touch of mean-it fierceness.
Beneath the ballistic flash, though, “Proud Mary” is a rather desultory sentimental fable about a veteran Boston killer, Mary (Henson), who takes a 13-year-old street urchin, Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), under her tattered wing. She becomes his protector, and in the process tries to liberate herself from a lifetime of regret. Henson is the right actress to play a contract killer grown weary, but as a thriller “Proud Mary” doesn’t do her justice. It’s a connect-the-dots underworld trifle, watchable and minimal (at 88 minutes, it has time for about one-and-a-half plot twists), though Henson holds it together and, at moments, comes close to convincing you that you’re watching a better movie.
Mary meets Danny when she orphans him by killing his deadbeat father. The kid is already a precocious criminal, a survivor with a tough pout, who works for a local hood — played by the always appealing Xander Berkeley, though in this case trying out an unfortunate stage-Yiddish accent from the early ’60s. Danny’s plight brings out the maternal instinct that Mary has been repressing her whole life, ever since she was a lost teenager who got rescued by Benny (Danny Glover), the gangster who trained her to be an assassin and made her part of his criminal family. It’s a nest that no one is allowed to leave.
Glover, now 71, gives a canny and arresting performance. Holding his tall frame stock-still, he’s all scratchy vocal delivery and folksy benevolence — until he’s crossed, at which point he turns evil, though he doesn’t alter his delivery at all, just the words he’s saying. He’s a very friendly monster. We can see why Mary would want to be free of him — and, what’s more, why she’s still running from her romance with Benny’s cloyingly heartless son, Tom (Billy Brown). They’re her clan, but she wants to breathe clean air again.
In 1994, “The Professional” teamed Jean Reno and the young Natalie Portman and proved that it was possible to make a movie about a hitman who partners with a kid and not have it be a corny contrivance. But just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s easy. “Proud Mary” is too sketchy to give Mary and Danny’s kinship anything more than an abstract weight. It’s the sort of movie in which Danny accuses Mary of taking care of him out of guilt, and she replies, “That’s not true! Well, maybe it was at first, but it’s not true now.” The dialogue simply mirrors the script’s formulaic design.
Henson, at least, makes every scene breathe. She’s not an exploitation actress. She gives Mary a haunted bravado, and when she finally confronts her enemies, one by one, you feel the weight of each pulled trigger. Yet maybe that’s the very reason why Henson is decent, but not exceptional, as an action star: As she wheels her car through a spray of bullets, or picks off henchmen with perfectly timed shots, she goes through the motions just fine, but you never feel like she was born for this kind of brutality. Taraji P. Henson has too much humanity to be reduced to a lethal weapon.