The most nagging one of all is the matter of Mary’s pride. All we really see her do is drive and shoot. Wouldn’t a proud Mary be posting selfies next to new corpses? It almost doesn’t matter that Ms. Henson is playing her, even though that fact should make this the most fun you have at a movie all month. But Ms. Henson, who’s an executive producer, left her flamboyant starriness on the “Empire” set. She’s all business here, but the business feels so small.
It turns out that the movie is about how Mary winds up babysitting a kid because she feels bad for killing his father. So why this thing isn’t called “Guilty Mary” or “Mary, Don’t You Weep” is beyond me. But that’s not what this movie’s about. What it’s about is justifying that title. It’s a justification about 75 minutes in the making, which is about 74 too long.
For the incoherent, visually chaotic climax, Mary winds up flooring her expensive coupe into the men shooting at — but somehow missing — her. The camera can barely keep up with the bodies and the debris hurtling toward it. Some of that debris doesn’t even seem real. The bullet holes might give the worst performance in the movie.
Anyway, what’s playing for most of the sequence is Mr. Fogerty’s song — not his canonical Creedence version but Ike and Tina Turner’s. That arrangement departs radically but respectfully from Mr. Fogerty’s. It starts with an overture in which Tina tells us how she and Ike and the Ikettes are going to take this thing from modesty to explosive overstatement (“You see, we never ever do nothing nice and easy”) before she blasts off. “Rollin’ down the river,” yes. But when she’s singing, powerboatin’ down it, too. It’s such a tone-deaf misappropriation of music that it left me feeling litigious.
There’s nothing legally wrong going on here, though. Screen Gems, the Sony imprint that produced and released the movie, paid for use of the song, whose rights don’t belong to Mr. Fogerty. But the incompetence really is something. Or maybe it’s the obviousness. Maybe it’s the inevitability. The whole movie seems to exist just for this sequence. Even if I’d paid just to see Ms. Henson mow down gangs of goons (and I probably did pay only for that), I didn’t get my money’s worth. It’s like I bought a can that said “peaches,” got peaches in the can, but the can was rusty, so the peaches were, too.
Movies and television have a way of using a soundtrack not just to create a mood but to literalize it. You could always count on a master class in splitting the difference between artistry and obviousness during the so-called Blaxploitation era (which “Proud Mary” practically pulls a muscle reaching back to evoke). “Shaft” and “Superfly,” on the one hand. On the other, “Coffy is the color of your skin/Coffy is the world you live in.”
For its part, in a statement to Entertainment Weekly, Screen Gems made Mr. Fogerty an entreaty: Come see the movie! “He would see” the statement reads, “that his complaint that the film has nothing to do with the song’s message as ‘a metaphor about leaving painful, stressful things behind for a more tranquil and meaningful life’ is inaccurate. That is precisely what our Mary is looking to do, and Taraji nails it perfectly.”
They’re not wrong. But come on. Mary winds up taking her self-inflicted babysitting assignment so seriously (I won’t spoil the details) that she actually has no choice but to leave the stress behind.
Now, I know what somebody involved with this movie was thinking. The screenplay seems as if it’s been kicking around for who knows how long (Pam Grier could have done this in 1973, title and all), and maybe it used to be called something else. But it’s “Proud Mary” now, and Mary is a black woman — and when was the last time a black woman, who isn’t Halle Berry, carried any movie by herself, let alone one in which she keeps an arsenal hidden in her walk-in closet, not far from her wigs, one that lets her do the old shoot-and-slide along a warehouse floor? This really is a kind of momentous occasion, and for that you need a momentous song, and “Proud Mary” more than satisfies the occasion. Every time I hear Ms. Turner spit out the word “left” or sing “burnin’” or “all right!,” I want to fight to ensure voting rights. I want to karate chop something.
So it all makes a kind of sense, right? Let’s honor the occasion with a song worthy of it. The occasion might warrant this song.The movie is a different story. I’m not so sure about the movie. Leaning on the Ike and Tina version might bring it into better, blacker alignment with the movie’s star, but it addresses neither the central incongruity (Why use this song for a massacre? Why use it for a massacre this badly orchestrated?) nor the artistic injustice of Mr. Fogerty’s complaint. There are bullet holes in walls, tire treads on mobsters, and now bullet holes and tire treads all over his song.