The poster was pretty much the only reason I wanted to see Proud Mary.
It's a striking visual: set against a plain beige background, the poster featured the film's title—in curlicue lettering that screams 1970s—below the head of an African-American woman with a robust afro. It was the hair that intrigued me because the afro wasn't hair at all. It was a black-and-white collage of star Taraji P. Henson holding a variety of guns in a variety of menacing poses, crowned by a city skyline. The closer you looked, the more you could see—Danny Glover, some knives, a sports car—but, strangely, the less was revealed. You instantly knew what you were getting (an action flick) and you instantly knew its sensibility (hardnosed, throwback). But that was it.
Brian Christensen and Truc Le, who oversaw the movie's marketing campaign for L Associates, told Nylon that the poster had a chance to be something special because the studio gave them carte blanche. "Our client at Sony, Damon Wolf, gave us an incredible amount of creative freedom on this project," they said. "He challenged us simply to do something really amazing: a work of art, rather than a piece of movie marketing. Basically, he said, ‘Do something so cool that I have to print it.' It was liberating to have that kind of free creative rein."
Anyone who has walked the halls of a modern movie palace can understand just why they felt so free: the walls are plastered with posters featuring the same ideas, the same layouts, over and over again. There tend to be a lot of floating heads photoshopped together to inform people who will be in the movie. You see a lot of men in action, tinted black and white with the only color a curl of flame. Don't even get me started on the character one sheets, which simply feature someone from the movie with a line to explain who they are.
The studios, frankly, are boring us to death with their posters; if you don't believe me, check out Vince Mancini's This Week in Posters feature every once in a while. You have the greatest, most powerful visual medium ever created to advertise, and you do so by having some guy holding a gun leering over the title of the movie or by cutting and pasting a bunch of stars together? The people who make movies could do better by looking to the people who love movies to see what they do with the medium. Far more interesting work is being done at print shops like Mondo and Bottleneck Gallery and Hero Complex Gallery, upstarts who have helped bring a spark of vitality into the whole scene.
As writer-director Brad Bird put in the foreword to The Art of Mondo, "At their best, Mondo posters convey the essence of what makes a great movie special, often more vividly than the well-known images originally crafted by the studios to introduce a film to the world." To be fair, a shop like Mondo is working at an advantage: they have years, sometimes decades of nostalgia and familiarity to play with in order to create something both head-noddingly recognizable and head-turningly original. For instance, Jay Ryan's print for The Breakfast Club—five heads with blank faces adorned with haircuts we recognize and the archetypes ("Burnout," "Princess," etc.) the characters represent superimposed in the foreground—probably wouldn't work as a piece of movie marketing. But, as a piece of art, as something we would be willing to hang on our walls, it's undeniably brilliant. Similarly, Olly Moss's There Will Be Blood poster—a stark, minimalist image of an old-fashioned oil pump, its walking beam replaced with a cross—conveys the central conflict of Paul Thomas Anderson's brilliant opus in a single shot, even if it wouldn't necessarily work as a piece of marketing.
The Proud Mary poster strikes a perfect balance between salesmanship and art. At least, it worked on me. So how was the movie?
Ehhhhh. Not great. Henson stars as Mary, a contract killer working for one of the organized crime families in Boston. After finishing one of her hits, she realizes there's a kid in the apartment where the murder has taken place. Tearing up, she flees. Flash forward a year and we see that she's following the kid around, trying to keep him out of trouble. Well, some trouble. Danny (Jahi Di'Allo), the kid, is working for Uncle (Xander Berkeley), a competitor to Mary's crime family, running drugs all around town and taking beatings when he talks back. Mary kills Uncle for threatening the boy and kicks off a turf war between the … Russians, I think? … and Mary's boss, Benny (Danny Glover).
Henson is at her best when she is playing the role of the scolding mother, telling Danny to watch his mouth and the like. I never quite bought her as an unstoppable contract-killer in part because the action scenes are stitched together in ways that make the combat seem more ridiculous than riveting. But rarely ridiculous enough to give it an over-the-top feeling of crazy fun, if that makes sense. The film's best moment comes near the end, when Mary drives headlong into a warehouse full of killers, implausibly dodging bullets and using her vehicle as a missile.
It's clear Proud Mary is intended in the mode of the "old-guy killer" trend we've seen recently, but it's not high-concept enough to work. Taken was about a dad who wants his kid back. John Wick is about a guy who wants revenge on the guys who killed his dog. Proud Mary is about a woman who wants out of the mob and also feels bad for killing a kid's dad and also wants to be a mom and also wants to avoid a mob war she inadvertently started. There's too much going on. The haphazard way the film is stitched together and the 89-minute running time suggest some serious surgery was performed in the editing bay to make this movie suitable for release at all.
The biggest disappointment, honestly, is that Proud Mary never really does anything with the 70s vibe the poster and the title sequence promise. The film opens with a hi-hat tsking and a bass-line rumbling, and you get a very Shaft vibe from the whole thing. But the Blaxploitation ambiance is quickly jettisoned. The score, through most of the film, would fit right in with any generic action film since Taken. The camerawork is very simple and modern (we don't get a single 1970s zoom, dammit). I'm not sure why you'd introduce the period sensibility to a film set today and not run through the whole movie with it.
At least we got that sweet poster out of all this. I probably won't put it up on my wall or anything—there's no room in my office next to the Hail, Caesar! Mondo print by Francesco Francavilla—but it's the first studio-commissioned poster in a long while that has tempted me to make space.