These days, shoot em ups and chop socky revenge movies are a dime a dozen (call it the John Wick effect), but good ones are still few and far between. Squibs and stage punches are probably fun for the performers, but unless all that murder and mayhem is choreographed compellingly and shot with a sense of visual wit it sort of fades into the background. In The Protege, far more care seems to have gone into the stunts themselves than the movie around them. That’s a good thing, within reason, but the film eventually expects us to be invested in motives, when the only thing compelling was ever the visual spectacle of graphic murder.
Directed by Casino Royale‘s Martin Campbell (the marketing materials conveniently ignore him having also directed Green Lantern) The Protege stars Maggie Q as Anna, the titular protege, trained from childhood to be a sought-after assassin by her mentor, Moody (Samuel L. Jackson). He discovered Anna hiding in a closet with a gun in a room full of dead guys when she was just a little girl, back in Da Nang in 1991. Moody was supposed to be doing hitman stuff, but presumably, he sensed the child’s natural aptitude for homicide and raised her as his own, schooling her in the ways of the shooting, the stabbing, the kung fu and so forth, until she eventually got so cool under pressure that she no longer looks at explosions.
Grown Anna can shoot, ‘splode, and strangle with the best of them, but her true innovation seems to be hiding knives in things. We first meet Anna when she kidnaps a Romanian mafia princeling to hold for ransom. Or so we think, at first. After a spirited pummeling by some Bucharest toughs, she’s brought before the ransomed prince’s father, who shows her to the carefully packed ransom money and promises that she won’t live long enough to spend it. At which point she turns her cell phone into a switchblade and stabs him in the neck. Hey, cool trick! Later she pulls the same thing with a cigar. Where does she get such wonderful toys?
Anna and Moody eventually return to London to count their lucre (every action movie these days has to shoot in at least five countries, must be something to do with tax breaks), and Moody, who coughs like he’s dying (which in movies means he is dying), asks Anna to check up on some kid who Moody orphaned back when Papa Roach still ruled the charts. Seems that Moody, who just celebrated his 70th birthday, is feeling repentant in his old age. Only trouble is, every person who Anna even asks about this mystery man seems to turn up dead. Simply hearing his name is tantamount to watching that videotape from The Ring.
Anna’s mission to avenge her friends and find this man eventually brings her face to face with a rival assassin named Rembrandt, played by Michael Keaton, who happens to work for the guy Anna wants to kill. Nonetheless, the two bond over knowing the same obscure Poe poems by heart (get this guy on FBoy Island!) and generally seem to have a sexually charged, enemies-with-benefits dynamic. In some ways, Q and Keaton are an inspired pairing, with an interest sort of chemistry. Keaton still has that old twinkle that always made him so compelling, and there’s a great scene where the smitten but still sociopathic Rembrandt admits “I could put two in the back of your head and then make myself lunch.”
Yet the obvious elephant in the room is that Keaton’s role seems to have been written for a man at least 20 years younger. It’s not that a woman Maggie Q’s age (42) has never fallen for a man Michael Keaton’s age (69) in real life. It’s not that Keaton’s character is basically the same age as Anna’s adopted father. It’s just that the movie never bother acknowledges any of these obvious things. We’re just meant to accept their sexual tension from the jump. Rembrandt also fights like he’s 25, piledriving henchdudes through tables and throwing people over furniture in the form of a stunt double who is almost comically Not Michael Keaton. I love seeing Michael Keaton, and there are ways to write both fight and sex scenes that make sense for a 60-year-old man (didn’t Adam Sandler have a sketch about this?), but this ain’t it.
But again — The Protege‘s stunts are actually pretty good. They’re cleverly staged (Maggie Q swinging on a fire hose) graphic with the intended impact (impaled with a meat thermometer!), and generally speaking, thump when they’re supposed to thump. Neither does Campbell his stunt coordinators (Georgi Dmitrov and Georgi Manchev) in non-diegetic music and constant hyper stylization — here I’m thinking specifically of the thoroughly forgettable Bob Odenkirk shoot-em-up from a few months back, Nobody.
It’s just that The Protege‘s overarching revenge plot is half-baked at best. A quarter baked, really, and that’s being generous. There’s a rich guy, a disabled son, and a failed assassination attempt that we never even understand, let alone care about. Such that when the film starts trying to tie up the necessary loose ends at the end, we’re metaphorically tapping our watches.