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In an era when everything seems to be a sequel or a spinoff, it's a welcome break to find any major release that looks to be something fresh and new – and on the surface, Martin Campell's The Protégé would seem to be exactly that. It's a non-franchise action flick with an Asian female lead, something we certainly don't see a lot of. Unfortunately, the star is ultimately just about the only thing that feels fresh and new in the movie, and while her performance is worthy of a major Hollywood feature, it's not enough to save the film from feeling like something we've actually seen too many times before.
The movie begins in 1991, finding professional hired killer Moody (Samuel L. Jackson) in Vietnam when he comes across a grisly scene. Several men have been brutally killed, and the only survivor is a young girl found hiding in a cupboard holding a gun. Exactly what's happened here is far from clear, but Moody decides to take the young girl in, and 30 years later Anna (Maggie Q) has grown to be quite the accomplished killer herself. Working alongside her surrogate father, the two make a deadly pair, making millions for contract hit work – but don't worry, they only kill the bad guys.
On the night of Moody's 70th birthday, he asks Anna to track down somebody for him, allowing her to exercise one of the particular skills she's honed over the years. Things go wrong when the inquiries set off alarm bells and a hit squad goes after the protagonists. Anna goes on a hunt for vengeance, but first she must figure out who is after her and why – a quest that will force her to return to Vietnam and put her on a collision course with Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), a man in the employ of whoever it is that's trying to kill her, and who plans to stop her... even if he also finds her quite attractive.
Maggie Q is an excellent action lead.
It's been a decade since Maggie Q was the lead in the Nikita television series, and while the parallels between that story and this one are obvious, what's also still very obvious is that she is an excellent action lead that Hollywood slept on far too often. The simple fact that The Protégé is a movie that puts an Asian woman in place as the primary hero is a move worthy of support and acclaim and the actress does not disappoint. The action of The Protégé is by far the highlight of the film.
It's not stylized or particularly creative in its choreography, but it has a brutal, visceral feel that we don't see often – and we see even less when women are involved. The action scenes are at least something you can follow thanks to solid cinematography, which is more than can be said for some other recent theatrical action films.
Maggie Q is so good that that it elevates one's expectations, but for the most part The Protégé fails to deliver. Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton are both solid in their supporting roles – nobody feels like they're phoning it in – but Jackson's mentor/father figure and his relationship with our heroine isn't given much development on screen, and Keaton's "villain" is given even less. It makes it difficult to invest in them, which means that the moments in the movie which are supposed be of heightened emotion fall flat.
The Protégé tries to build mystery and suspense where none needs to exist.
In many ways The Protégé has trouble settling on what kind of movie it wants to be. While the action scenes are solid, I would hesitate to use the phrase "action movie" as its genre, as the movie goes long stretches between its action beats to focus on the drama of the mystery as Anna attempts to figure out just who tried to kill her and why. However, the suspense of the mystery also gets lost in the mix. This isn't a whodunit where there are clues for the audience to pick up on and figure out. We simply follow Anna on her journey, which would be fine if the movie didn't seem to want to make the mystery a bigger deal than it actually is.
We always know less than the characters do, sometimes awkwardly so. Eventually Anna finds out the what and the why of everything, but the film decides to continue to keep the audience in the dark for no reason whatsoever. There's no grand twist that is wafting to drop that requires so much dragging out, and the solution isn't particularly hard to figure out. If the audience had learned the details at the same point Anna did. it wouldn't have changed anything, but The Protégé just decides to keep its secret a while longer. However, since the characters know all the answers, when the audience finally learns them there's no release of that tension on screen, making the moment mean nothing.
There are also some strange tone shifts. Most of the action sequences are bloody and violent. They're perfect if you like your action of the "dark and gritty" variety. But one sequence between Maggie Q and Michael Keaton is played for laughs, and while the two characters have plenty of humorous banter throughout the film, the fight scene feels out of place, like it belongs in a different movie.
In the end, The Protégé just feels like a missed opportunity.
There a bunch of silly nitpicks one can make, such as in moments where the professional assassin forgets to check behind the door for the person trying to kill her (because the script requires it). These aren't the symptoms of a bad movie so much as they are the symptoms of a movie that just hasn't engaged you, allowing you to see the smaller problems.
Of all the movies to see a theatrical only release in 2021, The Protégé is arguably one of the more unusual. In another era this is the sort of movie that might find an audience through endless replaying on cable TV. Today it's the movie that casual fans might decide to give a look if it popped up on their streaming service of choice as a recommendation. Many will probably enjoy it well enough when that day comes. It doesn't require much heavy lifting from the audience, and it's enjoyable enough while you're watching it. It's just not the movie does anything particularly special, and perhaps it could have been.