(SPOILERS) Calling The Protégé a serviceable action thriller isn’t really a dig at director Martin Campbell, as he’s been making those – post-TV work and even earlier sex comedies – for most of his career. Because he has very fluid, capable chops, though, he’s occasionally risen above this. His Bonds are two of that series’ best, largely due to his steady, assured hand at the tiller. The TV drama that kickstarted his movie career proper, Edge of Darkness, is something else, of course, a case of rising to the challenge of remarkable material (and his big-screen remake, redundant as it is, is no slouch either). In contrast, the Protégé finds the director continuing to sift the waters of appreciably lesser fare, a situation that comes of spoiling the oyster of comic-book opportunities (The Green Lantern, in Campbell’s case). But it’s punchy, efficient, and suggests he’s showing no signs of fatigue, despite approaching his ninth decade.
There’s a sense here of scraped-together B-movie-ness, not so different to his last effort The Foreigner (wherein old mucker Pierce Brosnan paired with English-language-mode Jackie Chan). Maggie Q’s largely been off my radar since Mission: Impossible III and Live Free and Die Hard thanks to a consistent run of TV fare I diligently have not followed. On the few occasions I’d seen her, I thought she displayed more than capable action chops (and held out hope she’s show up in subseqeunt M:Is). She still has, but any prospective movie star ship has long-since sailed at this point, and no one should have been expecting more than a modest response to this tale of a Vietnamese orphan raised to be an assassin, tracking down her mentor’s killer and kicking ass along the way.
Q is reliably poised as Anna Dutton, then, but doing little to make you think she was passed over for greater things. Not helping matters is the screenplay from Richard Wenk, whose career goes way back to Vamp (which he also directed). Since the pretty good 16 Blocks, he’s been subsisting mostly on remakes and adaptations (The Equalizers, The Magnificent Seven, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, and also the upcoming Kraven the Hunter and Lethal Weapon 5). Consequently, The Protégé puts one more of the ungainly thriller material that comprised the Equalizer and Reacher sequels.
There’s an investigative plotline that fails to pick up sufficient intrigue (it turns out David Rintoul’s arch villain Edward Hayes faked his own death, although Samuel L Jackson’s Moody Dutton, Anna’s mentor/dad assassin, believed he did the real deal in doing for him). Wenk turns in tired tropes that call attention to the movie’s limitations; Moody fakes his death early on, after being targeted for assassination, and later swoops in to save Anna at a crucial moment. That device might not have been so grating were this not expressly one of Jackson’s pay cheque gigs; there’s never a sense he’s bringing anything extra to the table of a thinly written role, aside from a sickly cough.
We’re lucky, then, to have Michael Keaton as rival assassin Rembrandt (he’s working for Hayes). This isn’t Keaton in Pacific Heights or Desperate Measures mode; he’s on the opposite side of the fence, but he has a code, and his superior air of professionalism, modified through all our favourite Keaton ticks, makes for engaging viewing (he and Q have solid chemistry too). If Keaton gives the movie its spark, though, it’s also impossible to avoid acknowledging he’s been set up as Q’s romantic interest while being thirty years her senior. Sure, Mike’s had the requisite hair plugs/transplants, and a couple of lifts; he seems in good shape. But the guy’s seventy. Even Roger Moore wouldn’t have been so cheeky. Still, casting him as a septuagenarian assassin confirms there’s no reason to have qualms over his return to the cowl (twice!) this year.
Also in the mix are Robert Patrick as a benign biker called Billy Boy and Patrick Malahide as someone who gets offed (such is invariably the fate of Malahide in movies). The Protégé concludes with the old “if you don’t see them die, they probably aren’t (dead)”, so any unlikely sequel could feasibly bring Keaton back. Hopefully Wenk will brush up on his romantic small talk in the meantime (“You point a gun at my pussy and then you ask me to bed? I like your style”; “Said the woman with hollow points pointed at my balls”; “Make up your mind. Kill me or fuck me”).
There’s a similarly less-than-scintillating discussion on morality between Moody and Hayes, as the former attempts to distinguish himself from the latter; Moody is simply corrupt, while Hayes is evil, and “Evil believes bad is okay”. It’s a somewhat tenuous line of reasoning, and with the writing being what it is, I’m unsure we’re supposed to recognise it as such. Campbell also includes a gratuitously unnecessary flashback scene explaining exactly the fate of Anna’s parents (cue beheading) that would only really work if we felt we needed an explanation or gory detail. The Protégé isn’t that kind of movie, though. We aren’t that invested, and no one involved is doing this other than to keep their careers ticking over.