Synopsis – Rescued as a child by the legendary assassin Moody, Anna is the world’s most skilled contract killer. However, when Moody is brutally killed, she vows revenge for the man who taught her everything she knows.
My Take – Despite being widely popularized in the 90s following the release of La Femme Nikita aka Nikita, an action thriller written and directed by Luc Besson, the femme fatale assassin sub-genre has since then kind of run into the ground, mainly due to its extreme repetition of its by-the-numbers formula which always saw a dynamic yet scarred protagonist use her deadly skills to seduce then maim, shoot and blow anyone who would stand between them and their quest for revenge.
While recent years has seen a small resurgence with the release of films like Atomic Blonde (2017), Anna (2019), Ava (2020) among others, apart from a few stand out elements, the sub-genre continues to deliver somewhat forgettable entries. And while this latest film also happens to be in the same vein, it at least does what it sets out to do, and does it well, resulting in something that is way better than it should be, unsurprising yet competent.
It’s a straightforward genre picture, directed with the trademark sleek clarity of Martin Campbell, best known for steering GoldenEye (1995) and Casino Royale (2006), two uniquely different James Bond reboots, and marked a compelling return to the big screen, following the massive flop of Green Lantern (2011), with The Foreigner (2017), though this one is sillier and less grim.
Backed by an unnecessarily convoluted plot written by Richard Wenk (The Equalizer, The Equalizer 2), the film delivers all you can expect from such a flick. It isn’t groundbreaking cinema, and often feels proudly aware of the fact. But when not reveling in the comfort zone of its genre trappings, the film takes gleeful aim at our preconceptions to deliver a couple of unexpected killer blows, something which fans might get a kick out of.
The story follows Anna (Maggie Q), an assassin who along with her mentor, Moody Dutton (Samuel L. Jackson), an expert marksman, travels the globe fulfilling their assignments, using their London based antiquarian bookstore as a front. Saved as a child from the early 1990s massacre in Vietnam, Anna feels indebted to Moody, which over the years has grown into a father-daughter like bond.
But when Moody seeks Anna’s help to track down the whereabouts of the child of a man he killed thirty years ago, a group of gunmen shown up at his mansion slaughtering him. Fueled with revenge and suspension that Moody’s research into the supposed dead man got him killed, Anna heads back to Vietnam to track down the culprits, who may or may not be associated with an international arms dealer and power broker based in Da Nang.
Once there, she finds herself facing a plethora of gun men and assassins, especially the fast-talking Michael Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), her mysterious quarry’s murderous chief henchman, with whom she establishes a quick-witted, cat-and-mouse rapport. This is as quintessential of an action-thriller as you could ask for.
And it feels right for director Campbell‘s talents, a revenge movie with tons of hand-to-hand combat and gun play, filled with the kind of stunt-driven, cleanly directed mayhem that has been his forte for most of his career. The film is slick and proficient, and wisely follows director Luc Besson’s lead, recognizing that its leading lady’s good looks and keen fashion sense are as potent weapons as her martial arts or marksmanship skills.
With Maggie Q as its star, the action is brutal as expected. What would have been thrilling for a similar film years ago is now cliché, for example, Anna armed only with a pistol, facing wave upon wave of bad guys with assault rifles, and magically blowing them away while coming out without a scratch.
However what hampers the film is its plot, which as I mentioned before is convoluted unnecessarily for something that could have been pretty much straightforward. The twists weren’t as surprising, mostly underwhelming and unexciting, but it did blend the fast paced shoot ‘em up genre with a mentor-mentee relationship.
What saves the film from becoming a total clunker are the performances. Maggie Q, who has appeared in both the Mission: Impossible and Die Hard franchises and headlined the CW television series Nikita, maintains her no-nonsense charisma. Beyond considerable physical presence, Q brings touches of subtlety to a stock character. She shares perfect chemistry with her co-stars and manages to holds her own against their bombastic personalities by underplaying her line deliveries and relying on slightly bemused sarcasm.
Michael Keaton’s appeal and athleticism are beyond reproach. Most importantly, Keaton proves he is more than ready to don the Batman cape again director Andy Muschietti’s upcoming The Flash with a number of close-quarters altercations, all while sustaining a deliciously malevolent twinkle in his eye. Although out of place at times, his charm and playfulness made Rembrandt even more intriguing and ultimately deadly, but his witty banter and snappy comebacks were a refreshing reminder of Keaton’s comedic prowess.
Samuel L. Jackson once again brings his own individual late-career freewheeling energy in the same mode as he has in the Hitman’s Bodyguard films. In other roles, Robert Patrick makes the most out of his small but fun appearance, while David Rintoul is menacing in an underwritten role. On the whole, ‘The Protégé’ is a typically decent action thriller that’s unremarkable but entertaining.
Directed – Martin Campbell
Rated – R
Run Time – 109 minutes