Maggie Q gets a down and dirty action vehicle that doesn’t reinvent the lady-assassin wheel but has plenty of fun along the way.
Hollywood is in something of a conundrum these days. Audiences have by no means lost their taste for a good action flick, but such movies are meant for a theater experience, which has become somewhat limited by necessity. Then there’s the fact that so much of our lust for violence tends to be sated by established properties such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its competitors, not to mention other franchises such as the Fast & the Furious and The Purge movies.
So what’s an original, relatively straightforward thriller like The Protege to do? Well, you get a director like Martin Campbell and a screenwriter like Richard Wenk, who both have resumes stuffed with variations on thriller and heist films, and established stars such as Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton to build interest.
However, The Protege isn’t here so we can watch these icons take each other on, but to have them take a backseat to Maggie Q, who is less familiar despite maintaining a steady presence in film and television since the early 2000s. She proves a compelling lead in The Protege, not only effortlessly holding her own against two wildly charismatic forces of cinema, but keeping our interest when they’re absent, which is shockingly often.
Q’s mind-bogglingly skilled assassin Anna also gets the tragic backstory, but it’s just enough to give us an idea of how she got in the business of death and stayed in it. As a young girl, she lost her family to violence in 1991 Vietnam but proved herself a force to be reckoned with after she unleashed bloody revenge on her attackers. Discovered by Moody (Jackson) while he was on a job, he took Anna into his home, where she spent the next thirty years learning everything he knew and following in his footsteps.
Anna and Moody quickly prove worth rooting for with their mutually respectful, loving surrogate father-daughter bond, and their determination to only kill the worst of the worst. Good thing, too, because neither of them is in the least conflicted about what they do, easily maintaining a facade of normalcy at their luxurious London home base while plotting their move. The trouble starts when a bad guy they start tracking proves both well-connected and unwilling to be found, killing Anna’s associates and leaving her the last one standing.
Anna, naturally, vows vengeance, returning to Vietnam for much of the film to unravel the mystery behind the villain who destroyed the life she’d built and facing her own bloody past. Don’t expect any superhero serums or MCU antics in general though, since Anna’s only superpower is her thirty years of experience in her career of choice. And she’ll need every bit of it to win against some very competent henchmen who take actions that shock even her, doing away with a well-connected, moneyed businessman in his own office as they defend their boss by any means necessary.
Throw in a good cast and deliciously dark humor, and even the usual escapism can feel new.
It only gets worse, and Maggie Q is clearly loving her role as badass. She’s believable as the kind of assassin who needs no speeches about how women can be just as deadly as their male counterparts, especially when she’s been mentored by the likes of Jackson, who plays up his own role as a villain with relish. He may be older than Liam Neeson, but no one questions his presence in this genre, and audiences at my screening were clearly in no hurry for Jackon’s retirement, basking in his presence and even occasionally cheering when he showed up.
Then there’s Keaton, who exudes menace and sex appeal as Anna’s most formidable opponent Rembrandt. When they stop fighting just long enough to get in some good banter, it leaves one with the impression that the two just might be twisted soul mates, the kind who can find the humor in the barely cold body in the next room. They say love is complicated, right?
Such enjoyable dynamics help cover for a multitude of genre sins and plot holes — such as how anyone, even someone as formidable as Anna, could manage to walk upright so soon after getting those kinds of wounds or lift her gun when those frustratingly competent opponents actually land a shot or two. Whatever. There’s enough going for The Protege that its welcome remains remarkably intact throughout its two-hour runtime. Throw in a good cast and deliciously dark humor, and even the usual escapism can feel new.
The Protege is currently in theaters.