Of the recent wave of stylish action films about assassins (this is the third I’ve reviewed this year), The Protégé is the feature with the best pedigree. To begin with, it’s got Martin Campbell at the helm, the director of Goldeneye, Casino Royale, and The Mask of Zorro. It’s also a long, long, long-awaited leading action role for Maggie Q, who apprenticed with Jackie Chan and starred in four seasons of The CW’s Nikita but has always been relegated to supporting roles in Hollywood features. When the other two stars above the title are Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson, it’s hard not to get your hopes up. Q, Keaton, and Jackson each bring their best, but there’s just not a lot to the story, and what happens between setpieces gets less and less engaging as it unfolds. The Protégé’s action hits dead center, but when it aims at drama or intrigue it only grazes the target.
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Thirty years ago in Da Nang, Vietnam, hitman Moody (Jackson) happens upon a room full of dead men and a preteen girl holding a pistol. He takes her under his wing, and for the next three decades, Moody and his apprentice Anna (Maggie Q) enjoy a close friendship and a lucrative partnership as a hit squad for hire. Their specialty is eliminating hard-to-reach targets, and their fee is seven million euro a head. When not out on a contract, Anna runs a rare book store in London and Moody lives just out of town on an idyllic farm estate. Despite the grave reality of their work, they both seem content with themselves and very proud of each other. The sweet dynamic between Anna and Moody is the best part of The Protégé — Jackson is having a great time, as always, and he and Q make a cute little family. It’s one of the most convincing, specific, lived-in parent/child relationships I’ve seen in a while, made all the more charming by their labeling it as “friends.” He raised her, but in the here and now, they’re peers.
This joyful chapter of the film is short-lived. On Moody’s 70th birthday, he asks Anna to locate someone named Lucas Hayes, who disappeared in the late ‘90s. Shortly thereafter, Anna finds Moody dead in his home, and when the hacker she hired also turns up dead, Anna is certain that they were killed for investigating Hayes. With a target on her own back now, Anna follows her only lead towards Hayes and her chance to avenge her mentor, which will mean a trip to the one place she swore she’d never return: Vietnam. Once there, Anna must find the truth about Lucas Hayes, fight through a small private army, and kill her mark before he kills her. At first, she’s strongly motivated by Moody’s death, but as the movie progresses, her fury and loss seems to be forgotten amongst other plot wrinkles.
One such complication is Michael Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), an agent of her enemy with a sharp wit and the boundless confidence required to make a pass at a trained killer 27 years his junior. The attraction is mutual but inconvenient, since his job is to protect the man she’s in town to kill. Their flirty-threatening banter throughout the film isn’t quite as clever as it’s written to be, but Michael Keaton has an effortless charisma, Maggie Q has the necessary poise to force him to play low-status, and there’s enough chemistry between them to make the unlikely pairing seem plausible. It helps that their relationship isn’t framed as a romance; it’s an infatuation, a dalliance between two complicated people who rarely run into someone who can keep up. They’re fun to watch together, and so long as The Protégé is trying to be fun, it succeeds. It’s only when things get serious that the movie stumbles.
“You know what? I didn’t get your name,” says Rembrandt to the film’s lead, over dinner. Actually, we haven’t gotten it, either, and it’s 64 minutes in. “Anna,” she answers, and this isn’t some kind of payoff or mislead, it’s just that no one has said it aloud yet. This is how most of the reveals in The Protégé feel. A piece of information is withheld, maybe to create some sort of intrigue, and then it’s simply given to us, divorced from the tension of suspense and too late to offer the novelty of surprise. We’re often not with characters when they a uncover new development in the plot, which is practically an admission that none of it matters. We didn’t know something, we maybe even forgot that we didn’t know, and now we do, but nothing has changed. Any sense of mystery The Protégé has going into the second act is completely undercut by how little the answers matter by the time we get them. The plot just kind of unfolds alongside the more interesting character bits, gets punctuated by exciting action, but otherwise just happens.
Anna’s emotional arc isn’t very satisfying either, though that may be the point. In order to avenge Moody, Anna is forced to return to Da Nang, the city where he first found her. During her time there, Anna experiences a few moments of quiet reflection on her connection to the place. She sees a vision of her younger self with her family on a riverbank, for example. But, in the entire hour that The Protégé spends in Vietnam, at no point do we see Anna interact with another Vietnamese person. Apart from Maggie Q herself, there is one Vietnamese speaking role in the entire film, and it’s a villainous soldier in her flashback. We see the tops of a lot of conical hats, and we see very, very few faces.
I found this omission to be uncomfortable, but one scene in particular persuaded me that this a deliberate choice in service to Anna’s character rather than a bizarre, racist oversight. While visiting the hospital where Lucas Hodge was last seen, Anna steps outside to make a phone call and finds a man sitting on a rock by a pond playing a flute. He’s in the distance, his back is to her. She seems drawn to the peaceful music, perhaps a melody she recognizes from her youth. Before she can engage any further, she’s drawn back into her phone conversation with Billy Boy (Robert Patrick, Perry Mason), her ally who is also the leader of an American biker gang who intimidates the locals. This is a microcosm of her entire visit here — her bloody business is with the French and American interests who came to exploit the country. She is totally detached from this place and it’s probably going to stay that way. The only part of Vietnam she can still connect to is her trauma. That said, this did not even read on my first viewing, and it does not totally satisfy my discomfort.
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No Holds Barred
For all that doesn’t work in The Protégé, the action is still engaging, cool, and at times surprisingly brutal. While some action movies starring women are still a little sheepish about subjecting their heroines to the same level of punishment as their male counterparts, The Protégé pulls no punches. Over the course of the film, Maggie Q’s Anna is punched, shot, hit by a car, waterboarded, and hanged, and she still comes across as only marginally more vulnerable than James Bond or Ethan Hunt. The violence in the film is played sometimes for tension but often for laughs — more than one bloody encounter is scored with lively old school R&B. The Protégé goes to some dark places (did I mention she gets waterboarded?), but heavier or more gruesome beats feel out of place, while a Mr. & Mrs. Smith-style domestic shootout between Anna and Rembrandt is right in the pocket.
The Protégé is an anomaly in that it’s a movie that I, overall, don’t think is all that good, but might still recommend. Last week, I reviewed Free Guy, a movie I really enjoyed but hoped would not get a sequel. (Sequel plans were confirmed mere hours later.) The Protégé is a movie that I don’t all the way like, but I wouldn’t hesitate to see a sequel to it. I’d like to see Maggie Q get another crack at this character alongside another set of interesting guest stars. The Protégé has all of the components for a great and memorable action-thriller, just in the wrong proportions. It’s got good bones (three characters I like) and good muscle (fun chases and combat), but not enough cartilage to hold it together — and just enough brains to know better.