Review: THE PROTEGE, Short on Action and Drama, Long on Thespian Character Work

Maggie Q, Michael Keaton, and Samuel L. Jackson star in the action-thriller, directed by Martin Campbell.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Review: THE PROTEGE, Short on Action and Drama, Long on Thespian Character Work

Directed by Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, The Mark of Zorro, Goldeneye), a one-time A-lister who’s seemingly fallen on hard times, with admirable competency from a threadbare, underwritten screenplay written by Richard Wenk (The Equalizer, The Mechanic, The Expendables 2), The Protégé puts the “generic” in generic revenge-thriller.

With stock, one-dimensional characters, thin characterizations, and a shocking paucity of action, The Protégé will disappoint genre fans. Fans of Maggie Q (Nikita, Designated Survivor, Live Free or Die Hard), taking a rare, if no less welcome, lead role, and Michael Keaton, bringing a relaxed, easygoing charisma to an enigmatic role, will find little to like here too. A woeful lack of action, compounded by multiple, head-scratching tonal shifts, doesn’t help the proceedings, either.

After a thankfully brief prologue set decades ago in Vietnam, The Protégé starts-up proper in modern-day, post-communist Romania. The singularly named Anna (Maggie Q), a contract killer assassin, works with the man who raised her, Moody (Samuel L. Jackson), a freelance contractor who specializes in people who don’t want to be found (and killing them swiftly).

The duo take-down the so-called “Butcher of Bucharest” with extreme prejudice, a haphazard escape plan, and modest amounts of CGI bloodshed. As a team, Anna and Moody are a well-oiled killing machine, though Moody’s persistent cough and an upcoming 70th-birthday suggest Moody’s killing days are, if not exactly behind him, then likely to end in the near and not-so-distant future. Despite their choice in profession, Anna and Moody still manage to make for a comfortable family of two.

Everything changes, of course, when Moody finds himself on the wrong side of a home invasion and Anna, eager for revenge (insert slow-motion yawn here), begins the slow, arduous process of tracking down who ordered the reverse hit on Moody and why. Along the way from London, Anna’s home base, to Vietnam, the country of Anna’s birth and her home for the first ten years of her life, she repeatedly crosses paths with Rembrandt (Keaton), a senior contractor with a murky agenda and a borderline romantic interest in Anna. Rembrandt apparently admires Anna for her professionalism and her ability to look fantastic in whatever she happens to be wearing when the glacier-paced plot requires an obligatory action beat or four.

Despite short bursts of brutal, well-choreographed action, The Protégé fails to deliver on basic action goods, saving the most electrifying set-piece, a run-and-chase sequence set inside a high-security building filled with disposable henchmen, not for the climax, but for a mid-point action scene. Nothing else before or after in The Protégé matches this particular scene energy-wise, a likely sign of a modest budget incapable of matching genre demands.

Still, the scene functions as a show or sizzle reel for what Maggie Q, an oft-underused performer, can do when given the opportunity. Even Keaton, at 69 just three years behind Jackson in the age department, manages to deliver an impressive physical performance in the two or three scenes where he’s asked to do more than speak softly and carry an expensive firearm hidden in his perfectly tailored suit jacket.

Story-wise, The Protégé does little, if anything, we haven’t seen before, from Anna’s origin story (generously cribbed from Leon: The Professional) to her motivation (revenge for the death of her mentor-father figure), to the bland, forgettable Big Bad (an ultra-rich white dude who’s made his money through dubious, criminal means). With so much downtime between action scenes, The Protégé heavily relies on Maggie Q and her screen presence to carry practically every scene, regardless of how underwritten they might be.

While he’s offscreen for long stretches of time, Keaton also adds the requisite level of class and professionalism. Age disparities aside (27 years), Maggie Q and Keaton share an easygoing onscreen chemistry that practically begs for them to appear in a better, better-written film.

The Protégé opens in theaters today (Friday, August 20).

The Protg

  • Martin Campbell
  • Richard Wenk
  • Samuel L. Jackson
  • Michael Keaton
  • Robert Patrick
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Maggie QMartin CampbellMichael KeatonRichard WenkSamuel L. JacksonThe ProtégéRobert PatrickActionCrimeThriller

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