Not every movie needs to be outsmarted. Not every movie needs to push the envelope further. Not every movie must endeavor to do something unlike we’ve ever seen before. Sometimes a film picks a small target and works to hit it with maximum efficiency. There aren’t really any surprises to be had with Martin Campbell’s new movie The Protégé, but that’s okay. It’s a revenge-actioner that has capable actors doing action things, and those thrills are enough to make it a charming experience. It’s nice that there are action blockbusters out there blowing up lots of things and packing the screen with CGI, but there’s also something to be said for low-key punching and shooting with a relentless protagonist. It may not reach the dizzying highs of the precision-tuned action of something like John Wick, but it’s still solid for what it is thanks to the strength of its lead performers.
In 1991, Moody (Samuel L. Jackson) is a hitman on a mission, but when he reaches his target, he discovers that they’re already dead at the hands of a young girl hiding in a cabinet. Moody decides to take the young girl under his wing, and 30 years later, he and Anna (Maggie Q) are working jobs together under the ethos that, yeah, they’re assassins, but they only take out bad people. However, when Moody asks Anna to start digging into the life of an Edward Hayes, it brings down the thunder that ends up getting Moody killed. Looking to find and exact revenge against the people who killed her mentor and father-figure, Anna starts digging only to come across fixer Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), who is smitten with the assassin, and would rather she cease her crusade so he can date her instead of kill her.
For the most part, The Protégé plays out exactly as one would expect. If you have any familiarity with the action genre, you’ve seen this movie before, but there are a lot of movies you’ve seen before, and you go to them because they’re comforting. Campbell’s film is comforting in that you know how this is largely going to unfold, you like the actors driving the action, it feels like they’re invested (rather than just collecting a paycheck), and that while this movie isn’t going to reinvent the genre, it will play by its rules enough that you can enjoy all the punching and stabbing and shooting and so forth. Campbell, a veteran with a couple classic action titles under his belt like The Mask of Zorro and Casino Royale, knows how to competently stage and execute these scenes so that they never feel tedious and they always have an impact.
Where The Protégé has an ace up its sleeve is in the relationship between Anna and Rembrandt. Yes, Keaton is 27 years Q’s senior, but also Michael Keaton is very suave, and Anna never plays as a doe-eyed ingénue. Instead, they feel like peers thrust into a situation where in another life they would have been pretty happy together, but instead their respective missions have them set on a collision course to kill each other. Granted, the plotting kind of strains the credulity of the conflict due to revelations that undermine their individual missions, but Keaton and Q maintain the energy throughout. And while seeing Q dish out some violence is what you would expect (she’s playing the protagonist and title character), Keaton is giving as good as he gets, which is fairly impressive given his age.
As the film moves into its third act, you can see it’s starting to strain under even modest ambitions. There’s a twist that doesn’t quite work, and the film wants to give Anna a character arc about how her homecoming to Vietnam, the place where she faced her greatest tragedy as a child and also the place of her rebirth as Moody’s ward, affects her, but it feels like a rushed revelation. There’s a notion of “You can’t go home again,” but because Anna is so hard charging in her pursuit of vengeance, the psychological ramifications of her entire life aren’t really given much time so the notion that she’s gone back to such a loaded place from her past doesn’t land. It’s the ending of a character arc that isn’t really fleshed out enough to make it feel like a complete story for Anna.
But as “Assassin goes out and wreaks havoc against those who killed her mentor,” The Protégé is on point. It’s not the loftiest goal for a movie, but it scratches the itch that you want from a B-movie actioner. Talented actors like Keaton, Q, and Jackson use their talents to elevate the material, give it a bit more gravitas, and it’s still a fun time. While its more sober machinations at the conclusion don’t really work, they’re not enough to derail the mostly successful thrills that The Protégé knows how to dole out.
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