Hollywood can’t seem to get enough of the assassin movie lately. Ever since John Wick gunned down a club full of gangsters over a dead dog, the vengeful assassin has become the new action hero de jour. And as a result, we’ve gotten every flavor of assassin hero — the woman, the woman team, the older retired assassin. So what can the latest assassin movie do but shake up the formula a little? The Protégé, directed by Martin Campbell and written by Richard Wenk, is a “female-led assassin movie” meets a bunch of older action veterans chewing up scenery. And despite the film’s halfhearted attempt to mix it up a little, The Protégé proves that a formula can only be reused so many times before it gets stale.
After years of showing up in supporting roles in blockbusters, Maggie Q finally gets the spotlight in The Protégé as Anna Dutton, a survivor of a massacre in Saigon that left her whole family dead. Raised by the assassin who found her, Moody Dutton (Samuel L. Jackson, playing…Samuel L. Jackson), Anna has built a successful life for herself: carrying out assassinations under cover of her gender by night, and running an antique bookstore by day. But Moody is starting to get older, and Anna is growing deeply concerned that her father figure and partner-in-crime won’t be around for much longer. And her worst fears are realized when she enters his home to find him murdered by assassins for getting too close to some dark mystery from the past.
Q is the star around whom this action-movie vehicle is built, and it feels like it should be about time — hasn’t she paid her dues in films like Mission: Impossible III and Divergent, or proven her leading-woman chops in the CW’s Nikita? But somehow, Q disappears into a movie that gets taken over by her far more charismatic action veteran costars. Jackson could skate by playing some variation of his Pulp Fiction character for years — and he has — and he does it again in The Protégé, though with the added layer of grappling with his advancing age, which the film tackles as delicately as you’d expect it to (as in, not at all). At least Jackson can always be seen having a good time, and that’s almost enough to keep you invested.
Q, meanwhile, plays everything absolutely serious, and perhaps you can understand why considering she’s been deprived of her big action vehicle for so long. But next to her scenery-chewing costars, Q could almost be described as being devoid of charisma, or at least, the charisma necessary to carry an action feature such as this. She’s an excellent martial arts actor — her physicality is fluid and effortless — but there might be a reason that so many solid supporting players never make the leap to lead.
But it’s Michael Keaton who really steals the show, swaggering in as a rogue agent who is working for the bad guy out to get Anna. Keaton plays Rembrandt, a fixer or something for a rich shadowy figure intent on keeping hidden the son of a corrupt businessman whom Moody assassinated. It’s an extremely nonsensical plot that is made out to be more complex than it actually is, and despite the film’s globe-trotting nature, it’s extremely small. Regardless, Keaton gets to wear a suit and engage in some smolder-y banter, as well as brush off his action chops to go toe-to-toe with Q in a fight that is perhaps the only scene where Q’s Anna shows a flicker of personality. Keaton settles back into the action groove as smoothly as he steals every scene — though throughout The Protégé, I couldn’t stop the nagging feeling that this film was mostly a rehearsal for him to get back into action-hero shape for his return as Batman.
Campbell, whose filmography bafflingly inconsistent (it includes duds like Green Lantern and stunners like Casino Royale), sleepwalks his way through the direction, which is … just fine. It’s competent but as flatly shot as a bargain bin action flick would be, which The Protégé ends up feeling like. It takes a familiar formula that’s been recycled through Hollywood a couple times, and gives it an exotic locale and a few charismatic supporting stars to keep it from completely sinking. But its vision of a seedy, corrupt Vietnam is hilariously stereotypical, if not completely inaccurate (why is everyone wearing the conical straw hats at night? We get it, you’re in Asia!), more resembling the vague Hollywood idea of Hong Kong than anything. And despite Q getting the chance to play her own ethnicity for once, there’s not much done with the cultural context of her character apart from your generic revenge.
All in all, The Protégé is a dull assassin movie misfire that does no justice by Maggie Q and can’t be saved even by Keaton and Jackson making a meal of their scenes.
/Film Rating: 3 out of 10
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