Maggie Q and Michael Keaton Add Chemistry to the Clichés of ‘The Protégé’
“The Protégé” defines the modern-day cinema blender. The way it works is you put a film together from parts of countless other movies. It’s not about finding inspiration in previous titles. Instead it really feels like the movie was glued together from different frames and scenes we’ve seen before. Sometimes it can be a showcase for worthy talents. Here we get an efficient action director, Martin Campbell, working with two superb actors, Maggie Q and Michael Keaton. Their job consists of phoning in a role that seems to be every respected actor’s rite of passage: The assassin. But since this is the blender version, we’re not meant to get an original take on the concept. “The Protégé” is like a collection of a band’s greatest hits, as covered by someone else.
Like clockwork, the movie begins with a kidnapping. A Romanian gangster gets gagged and held for ransom by Anna (Maggie Q), a skilled killer who was rescued as a child in Vietnam by the mysterious Moody (Samuel L. Jackson). It was Moody who trained Anna in all the neat things assassins get to know, like how to tell the model of a gun from a mere click or how to make the proper soup to heal busted bones. Anna is also highly cultured and in her spare time runs a London bookshop specializing in rare editions. An enigmatic visitor, Rembrandt (Keaton), drops by one day and leaves Anna his number. Moody meanwhile, has a bad cough but refuses to get it checked out. Instead he tells Anna of a name from his past that he is attempting to track down. Before he can say more, Moody appears to be the victim of a hit squad that rampages through his house. Desperate for answers and revenge, Anna now tries to find out who Moody wanted to contact and who wanted him dead. Pretty standard, right?
“The Protégé” feels less like an attempt at original work than as a chance for Lionsgate to try and build a parallel franchise to its “John Wick” films. Even the cinematography attempts to copy the colorful, neon glow of that series. But the “Wick” movies are works of aesthetic pleasure, pulled off with great energy and self-aware plotting. “The Protégé” can feel like a slog because not only does it offer little that is new, it also takes forever to get to the point. Like last year’s “Ava” (all female assassins have similar names in these things), where Jessica Chastain played practically a twin to Maggie Q’s role, every moment feels like a recycled checklist item. The assassin is introduced via a kidnapping, then we meet her older mentor, then a bigger threat shatters their homely existence. Denzel Washington’s assassin in “The Equalizer” reads Proust, Anna sells the books. None of these hollow imitators has topped one of the great, original versions of this concept, Luc Besson’s “Nikita,” which remains so stylish and visceral.
The best part of “The Protégé” consists of the exchanges between Maggie Q and Michael Keaton. They banter and flirt with a deadpan vibe that would have been great if this were a “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” knockoff. They standout within a swirl of inconsistent, confusing plot elements ranging from Rembrandt not getting along with his own, evil colleagues to the narrative never quite explaining who is who. And of course there needs to be adequate space for moments where Anna gets waterboarded and kills five men with her great targeting. There is not much to say about Samuel L. Jackson, who has played his role so many times already, we suspect he brought along his own wardrobe. Martin Campbell was once the director of some excellent genre films, including the 1995 James Bond revival “Goldeneye” and that Antonio Banderas guilty pleasure, “The Mask of Zorro.” Those movies had coherent, fun plots to go along with the eye-catching visuals and good actors. “The Protégé” might be further proof that the age of directors is passing, and franchise demands will now determine the look and tone of a movie even more.
Thankfully, “The Protégé” does not overstay its welcome. At 1 hour and 46 minutes it does what it was meant to do. The crowd seeking a gorgeous woman mopping the floor with some goons might find momentary escapism here, and Michael Keaton again proves we need more of him in better films. It must be said these movies are not easy to do simply because of the technical craft involved. Alas, “The Protégé” is all exercise and nothing daring. We have walked its alleyways and dodged its bullets before. The fun is kind of lost when you can predict the ending ten minutes in after the title appears on screen.
“The Protégé” releases Aug. 20 in theaters nationwide.