The partnership between film distributor LionsGate and production company Millennium Media has been shaky as far as their output in the action movie genre is concerned; for every box office success like The Hitman’s Bodyguard and The Expendables franchise, there’s an underwhelming disappointment like the 2019 Hellboy reboot and Angel Has Fallen. Thankfully, their latest collaboration, The Protégé, is on the former side of the spectrum thanks to strong direction from Martin Campbell, entertaining action sequences, and solid performances from Michael Keaton and Maggie Q.
The main character of The Protégé is Anna Dutton (Maggie Q), a Vietnamese woman operating a bookstore by day and carrying out contract kills by night with Moody Dutton (Samuel L. Jackson), an assassin who after discovering her in hiding while on a mission in early-nineties Vietnam, takes her in and teaches her all his tricks of the proverbial hitman trade, from his methods of killing to lessons about trust, endurance, and how the past haunts someone the longer it lingers on the mind.
So when Anna returns one night to find her home ransacked and Moody assassinated, the titular protégé must prove herself as a master of combat and execution alone by avenging his murder. However, she soon discovers a clue that suggests the perpetrator is residing in her Vietnamese homeland. From there, Anna has the difficult task of venturing back to Vietnam to confront her past head-on while searching for her mentor’s killer, with the snarky hitman Rembrandt (Michael Keaton) keeping an eye on her as well for his own mysterious motives.
The greatest strength of The Protégé comes in its direction. Martin Campbell proved himself as a master of visually-driven suspense in the action genre with Casino Royale in 2006, and that same skill shines primarily through the action sequences in his latest film. While most contemporary action movies are filled to the brim with absurdity and witty banter, Campbell’s approach is more refined and driven through the facial expressions of his actors, well-paced editing, and an electronic score based in menacing drones. Viewers consistently stay on the edge of their seats as tension gradually builds in every set piece, whether it’s a lavish mansion or an ominous, rainy alley, then reaches a fever pitch when pursuers find tips such as the blood trail of their prey, all the way until it bursts in a brutal and bloody but realistically choreographed fistfight or shootout, complete with emphatic sound effects of bones breaking and objects shattering to make audiences cringe with the bumps and bruises that come with each impact.
The actors also do their part in carrying out Campbell’s vision for The Protégé. Maggie Q delivers a solid performance as the lead character in what should be the first of many action vehicles in her career. Q conveys Anna’s dedication to contract killing with cold stoicism, while using powerful reserve to let her guard down in an emotional conversation with old associates about her past and life with Moody. Her dialogues with Rembrandt take a different tone thanks to Keaton’s natural charisma; the two bounce off each other very well with great chemistry and a well-written dynamic that contrasts his sarcastic, inquisitive demeanor with Q’s no-nonsense detachment with often humorous results.
If there are any qualms to be had with The Protégé, it’s that there are select moments full of needle drops in the soundtrack and speed ramps that clash with the seriousness of the film’s tone, but those are few and far between. But most of the film’s issues are prevalent within its script; the focus on Anna’s confrontation with her past is lost in favor of a subplot involving a secondary character toward the third act, stemming from an unnecessary twist.
It’s also worth noting that the film feels cold until the story picks up, mainly because Anna doesn’t have a lot of dimension or agency as a character, and saves what’s considered a big revelation about her for the end of the film, when it’s something assumed right from the get-go, leaving the movie to end on a whimper of a resolution. That being said, there is something powerful about the film’s final images, as it suggests a myriad of avenues for a sequel to explore, and warrants discussion about the movie’s depictions of living with trauma. It’s just unfortunate that a film with so many strong elements wasn’t made with a more polished script.
Overall, it may not be anything entirely new, but the strength of the cast and the action sequences keep The Protégé entertaining for its runtime despite the issues with the script. Viewers will witness Maggie Q as an action star on the rise, gawk at how many bumps Michael Keaton takes in each fight scene, and be marveled by the stylish mise-en-scène. The film ultimately is a win for director Martin Campbell, a win for LionsGate Entertainment, and most importantly, a win for Asian representation on film. If one is looking to see a new action movie that doesn’t wear out its welcome, their mission is accomplished with The Protégé.