The Protege comes to us from director Martin Campbell and Richard Wenk, both seasoned journeymen. Campbell is of course best known for his outings with James Bond (namely Goldeneye and Casino Royale, both seminal entries in the series), though of course he’s also infamous for a little film called Green Lantern (though let’s be honest, there’s more than enough blame for that one to go around). As for Richard Wenk, he’s previously responsible for such screenplays as The Magnificent Seven (2016), The Mechanic, The Expendables 2, and both of the Denzel Washington Equalizer films.
On paper, these two are exactly the kind of filmmakers you would hire to craft an R-rated, down-and-dirty action thriller about hardened killers without any glaring CGI superhero shenanigans. In practice, that’s exactly what we’ve got here and basically nothing else.
We first meet the eponymous Anna (played in flashbacks by Eva Nguyen Thorsen) in 1991, after she somehow survived a massacre in a Vietnamese police outpost. She’s discovered by Moody (Samuel L. Jackson), an assassin who was in the area on an unrelated mission. He arrives to find all of his targets already shot, and a young traumatized girl hiding with a gun.
Thirty years later, Anna is now played by Maggie Q. She was effectively raised by Moody, trained to find (and occasionally kill) people and objects that don’t want to be found. I might add that she’s found a more uplifting way to utilize that skill set, running a rare book store when she isn’t on missions with Moody.
Then we find out that Moody just turned 70 and he’s got a chronic cough and… yep, he’s dead at the 30-minute mark. Right on schedule.
Just before he died, Moody was rooting around his old files, asking about a missing person connected to somebody he was hired to kill a while back. Then he ends up dead and assassins come after Anna, more people around her turn up dead, so now she has to dig up old skeletons… look, you’ve seen a movie before, right? You know how the rest of this goes.
To be entirely fair, Maggie Q is brilliant. She turns in a dynamic performance, she pulls off every action scene with aplomb, and she constantly looks like a million bucks. As an action movie vehicle for Maggie Q, the film more than accomplishes its goal.
As for Samuel L. Jackson, you already know what you’re getting. The man has developed his persona into a finely-honed blade at this point, and it’s deadly in his hands. The big distinction is that he’s not playing it as self-parody (see: The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard), but playing it straight. The closest comparison I can think of is probably Nick Fury, funny enough.
But then we have Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), a troubleshooter working for our antagonist. To be clear, I love Michael Keaton as much as the next guy. It’s great to see him back in action and kicking all kinds of ass up and down the screen. Moreover, this role needed someone with a rapier wit, someone so morally slippery that we could never be sure which way he would land or whose side he would really be on. On paper, Keaton was the ideal choice to play this role.
The problem is that Rembrandt was also supposed to be a contentious love interest for Anna. The two are on opposing sides, but even they don’t know if they’re going to end up fighting or fucking. It’s a fine idea in theory, but it doesn’t work because the chemistry just isn’t there. The two actors are doing the best they can with the witty repartee they’re given, but they simply did not work as any kind of romantic/sexual item.
Nobody else in the cast is worth mentioning. It was a pleasant surprise to see Robert Patrick show up as a supporting character, but he’s a plot device more than anything else.
The fight scenes are exciting enough. The camerawork, the editing, the choreography, they’re all fine. I’m particularly fond of the “cat-and-mouse” element, with opposing characters running from each other, hiding in ambush, trying to find each other, and so on. It’s a nifty way to break up the fight scenes while maintaining tension.
But then we get to the climax, in which the filmmakers try to shoehorn in some discussion about the nature of good and evil and everything in between. There’s also an attempt at commenting on the surrogate father/daughter relationship between Anna and Moody, drawing parallels with the protagonist. The past is also a prospective theme, as Moody’s reach back into his past mission carries some powerful similarities with Anna going back to Vietnam for the first time since her traumatic youth.
Alas, none of this works. There are many reasons, but the big one is that the antagonist is woefully undercooked. To wit, though all the other characters are clearly terrified of our Big Bad, we never see the Big Bad himself do anything scary. Aside from vague secondhand generalities, we have no reason to be scared of our villain, and we have no primary evidence that he has anything to atone for. All we know for sure is that he hired a bunch of assassins to kill a pair of hitmen and their criminal associates. Sorry, but that’s not enough. Not when so many of the film’s thematic statements are predicated on the notion that our villain is an irredeemable monster.
The Protege feels like a movie that set out to be a disposable mid-tier action flick and met its goal perfectly, but that’s not exactly true. After all, we’ve got the botched Anna/Rembrandt romantic rivalry and the undercooked themes explored in the climax. Both of these might have made the film into something interesting and unique if only they worked out to their full potential.
It’s fascinating and upsetting how the filmmakers show a sincere desire to make something unique, and all their efforts toward that end shriveled up and died. All we’re left with are a bunch of decent action scenes in a mediocre plot. The film serves well enough as an action vehicle for Maggie Q and Michael Keaton, more than proving that each of them deserve a far better film. This one’s worth a rental at best.