The Protégé stars Maggie Q stars as Anna, a highly-skilled contract killer who was raised and trained by Moody (Samuel L. Jackson) after he found her in Vietnam as a child. When Moody is unexpectedly murdered, Anna vows to get revenge on the people who killed the man who taught her everything. As she digs deeper into potential suspects, she becomes entangled with Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), an enigmatic killer who might have the answers Anna seeks. Though the film sounds like another run-of-the-mill assassin-revenge thriller, this movie is less focused on the revenge plot and ends being more of an origin story of an assassin breaking away from the shadow of her predecessor.
The assassin-revenge movie started becoming a popular subgenre in 2008 with the release of the Liam Neeson-starring Taken. The surprise box office and critical reception of the film helped launch this new subgenre that would feature an older, respected male actor playing a seemingly normal man who has a secret past life as an assassin or government secret agent or some gun-for-hire job. These respected men will then have something horrible happen to them, like their child being kidnapped or their dog being murdered, which forces them back into their past and unleash a hell-storm on anyone involved. Since Taken, we’ve gotten a number of these films from great actors, like Denzel Washington with The Equalizer, Pierce Brosnan in The November Man, and Keanu Reeves in John Wick, a movie that elevated the subgenre to new levels.
But The Protégé is different from all of those. Does it feature a revenge plot? Sure. Does it feature badass action sequences and fights? Most definitely. But director Martin Campbell understood The Protégé isn’t trying to tell a basic revenge story but rather tell the story of Anna. The Protégé plays more like a coming-of-age assassin movie than just a cold-blooded revenge film. Though a deadly assassin in her own right, Anna has lived in the shadow of Moody for her entire career. He saved her when she was younger, and he taught her everything she knows and has become a father figure to her. So, when she finds him dead, she is not only getting vengeance for the death of the person she cared about most in the world, but this is the first time that she doesn’t have Moody by her side or in her ear. I didn’t necessarily care about the ultimate big-bad behind Moody’s murder, but I was invested in Anna’s journey without Moody and how she went about solving the mystery. The movie also twists the revenge genre by having Anna and Moody only focus on killing “bad” people. They aren’t just guns-for-hire, they go after people who are pure evil and won’t be missed on this Earth. There is an interesting Samaritan-like approach to these assassins that leaves the door open for more world-building beyond this film.
Campbell is no stranger to action films, having directed two assassin-revenge thrillers in Edge of Darkness and The Foreigner, two of the best James Bond movies in Goldeneye and Casino Royale, and the endlessly enjoyable The Mask of Zorro. Campbell’s experience with filming action helps elevate the set-pieces in The Protégé. The action sequences are fast, crisp, and fun, and loaded with blood and bullets. Campbell doesn’t rely heavily on cuts and swift camera moves, but rather allows the scenes the playout and shows the impressive physicality of Maggie Q. Couple that with sequences of clever dialog and exposition, flashbacks that give us more insight into Anna’s life before she was found by Moody, and a tight, simple story and The Protégé ends up being a smart and exciting movie from start to finish.
Maggie Q is great as Anna in the best performance of her career. Though starring in movies for over twenty years, this is one of the few roles where Q is top-billed, and she makes the best with it. Her physicality is put on full display, as Anna demolishes anyone who comes in her way in some expertly choreographed fight scenes. I was most impressed by the amount of emotion Q brought to Anna. You understand how much Moody meant to her and see her desperation to get vengeance for him. She also brings tons of charisma, swagger, and nicely times humored. The Protégé also boasts a scene-stealing performance from Michael Keaton. Keaton commands the screen, bringing a level of much-needed gravitas to the film. He also gets in on some of the action and shows he can still hold his own in an action sequence even if he is an almost 70-years-old legend. Q and Keaton have smoldering chemistry that lights up the screen when together. Sometimes their scenes have the sexual tension that makes the film feel like Mr. and Mrs. Smith and other scenes show how good they are at what they do and how much respect they have for each other that their relationship feels like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s relationship in Heat. This relationship makes The Protégé continue to work in the quieter moments when the bullets and bloodshed have stopped.
The Protégé ends with the open-ended option for a sequel and with how good this movie is and how big the world-building can be, I want this to be a full franchise. Let’s give Maggie Q her own badass franchise in the vein of Taken and John Wick. Build this world out and let’s watch Anna continue to go after the world’s worst. With Q in the lead and Campbell behind the camera, The Protégé could be the next great action franchise.
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