The Protégé, 2021.
Directed by Martin Campbell.
Starring Michael Keaton, Maggie Q, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Patrick, Patrick Malahide, Ekaterina Baker, Madalina Anea, Ori Pfeffer, Jack Derges, Lili Rich, Florin Piersic Jr., Caroline Loncq, Gamba Cole, Velizar Binev, and Florin Zhang.
Rescued as a child by the legendary assassin Moody (Samuel L. Jackson) and trained in the family business, Anna (Maggie Q) is the world’s most skilled contract killer. But when Moody – the man who was like a father to her and taught her everything she needs to know about trust and survival – is brutally killed, Anna vows revenge. As she becomes entangled with an enigmatic killer (Michael Keaton) whose attraction to her goes way beyond cat and mouse, their confrontation turns deadly and the loose ends of a life spent killing will weave themselves even tighter.
The Protégé is a gratuitous and repellent action exercise that begs the question of why director Martin Campbell (yes, he was responsible for Green Lantern but also made James Bond classics GoldenEye and Casino Royale, with this project somewhat fitting in that wheelhouse) would want to helm such an overly edgy romp that feels like a teenager wrote it. Of course, it wasn’t written by one, but rather Richard Wenk, who has an unflattering resume of late consisting of a WWE movie and a terrible remake of The Magnificent Seven. You can probably guess which half of the equation sinks this movie.
Contract killer Anna (Maggie Q, putting in a fierce and gritty performance that’s nonetheless rousing to watch despite all the issues here) works together with her mentor Moody (Samuel L. Jackson, who at this point is just Bruce Willis acting in higher budget movies given the number of times recently his character has quickly left a narrative) to assassinate a Romanian crime lord. She stabs him in the neck with blood shooting forth like a water fountain as her partner headshots the henchmen from afar with a sniper rifle, setting the tone for a hyper-violent piece of work. It’s also easy to get behind that, doubly so with stylistic choreography and precise framing of the mayhem.
However, when the generic plot begins to kick in involving everything from chemical weapons, faked deaths, and tracking down the location of an individual that Moody helped escape Vietnam as a child, it all becomes a mess that doesn’t amount to anything beyond how far the story can push trauma. Simultaneously, The Protégé is also absurdly silly as Michael Keaton’s Rembrandt (a contract killer working for a boss that wants Moody dead, among other things) enters Anna’s bookstore (which is a front for her services alongside a genuine passion). As they begin to understand exactly who each other are, there’s heavy sexual tension between the two, a complication considering they soon find themselves trying to kill one another.
If nothing else, the story is committed to the running joke, which is something I’m torn between applauding and hating on. Factoring in the story is also going for the occasional dramatic moment (Anna has a dark past that is slowly revealed right up until the ending credits); it cheapens the impact and renders the overall narrative a tonal disaster. There’s a way these two elements can coexist but it’s not executed right here, although the flirtations between them are amusing and it’s easy to see why they would become attracted to one another. That’s also a shame since the fight scenes between her and Rembrandt are appropriately brutal and well-shot (including them slamming each other through a glass table). Everything surrounding Maggie Q and Michael Keaton desperately needed some combination of a rewrite and pulling back from excessive violence (women civilians are held hostage during public shootouts and unsettlingly lit up by Uzis, jarringly moments after the opposing leads are joking about shooting each other in their private parts).
Samuel L. Jackson is doing his usual routine, while Robert Patrick shows up as part of a biker gang willing to offer Anna assistance on the side. But for as much is a delight it usually is to see both of these talents, they don’t add anything interesting. Meanwhile, the intrigue of the mystery at hand is nonexistent, while an attempt at juxtaposing killers that take out evil trash against those that will take any job for hire falls flat. A handful of gleefully visceral battles between Maggie Q and Michael Keaton are assuredly entertaining, but that’s all The Protege has going for it. The highest praise to comfortably give is Martin Campbell did about the best job possible at turning a terrible script into something watchable.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com