Anna (Maggie Q) is a lethal human being. Rescued and trained since childhood by the legendary assassin, Moody (Samuel L. Jackson), Anna knows how to find what shouldn’t be found–whether it be the son of very bad men or a rare guitar for mentor. But she has a soul, one that craves a well-made martini and a home with at least two cats. She likes tough and intellectually-sound men like the mysterious Rembrandt, who keeps coming in and out of her chaotic life, bringing joy at times and pain during others.
What I really liked about Martin Campbell’s “The Protege” is that it fulfilled the action film quota while coming off as its own entity of entertainment. A quality film with a sharp personality, this Richard Wenk-scripted thriller has the perfect balance of hardcore, stunt-savvy fighting and gun sequences and dialogue-driven showdowns in public places. An interaction between Anna and Rembrandt at a bookstore produces a nice volley between the actors, but later scenes firmly establish an intimate yet professional that parlays itself over the fast-moving 110 minute film.
While Moody and Anna have an unbreakable bond that serves the movie well, it’s the interactions between Keaton and Q that power this film. “The Protege” has a nice soundtrack and a few highly sophisticated sets with the right amount of action ballet-centric cinematography to stand out in a crowded field stuffed with “John Wick” B-sides that often don’t pan out as anything more than a diet duplicate of its inspiration. But Wenk’s characters aren’t perfect fighters or humans, with extra layers of sophistication applied by a very game cast.
Jackson can coast on his cinematic persona in most films, but here he gets a little more meat on the bone as a killer who isn’t evil and has a soft spot for abandoned kids with bloodied faces and knowledge of how to use a deadly weapon. Q is known for her supporting turns in popular actioners such as “Live Free or Die Hard” and “Mission: Impossible 3,” but Anna gives her the front and center performance that her talent has deserved for a long time. She blends some “Haywire” physicality with a unique personality, a phrase that best describes the movie she’s leading. A subplot involving a traumatic childhood in Vietnam is given pathos by the actress. Q makes it easy to care about and also fear Anna.
Keaton makes for a solid hero and comedy maverick, but breaking bad is his specialty. It doesn’t take more than five minutes to catch a killer’s scent when he walks into Anna’s book store with a hunter’s intent. But their relationship, and subsequent scenes, travel down far more unpredictable paths than the main plot of the movie, which is Anna avenging the murder of her father figure, catching beatings while giving the opposition double the trouble. Keaton adds to every scene he’s in, whether it’s the sinister voice and sweet shades of his Marvel antagonist, Adrian Toomes, aka Vulture… or the ability to blend menace and curiosity all in one line reading.
The cast as a whole, which includes a very good Robert Patrick and Ray Fearon, elevates the film, but MVP of “The Protege” is Wenk’s script. When it comes to action tales with something familiar yet authentic, his name is often attached. Think of the underrated Jason Statham remake of “The Mechanic” or Denzel Washington’s “The Equalizer 2.” Bruce Willis has rarely been better than he was in Wenk’s scripted gem, “16 Blocks.” Q, Jackson, Keaton, and company thrive off the slower moments in “The Protege,” and Campbell’s sure eye for this terrain seals the deal in a big way.
“The Protege” isn’t gold. It won’t be considered for an Oscar. Only half of film critics will see past the bland name and trailer to recognize something different and energizing going on beneath the hood. That’s the reality of a lower budget August release, but that doesn’t mean the final product lacks in quality. From Anna’s sneaky yet fatal usage of well-hidden knives-attention to Rembrandt’s badly-timed yet well-intentioned flare for romance, there’s something intelligent built here.
My guess is Campbell’s film will respectfully fly under the radar, finding a bigger audience at home. Again, the harsh reality of a pandemic that is brewing again for the second year in a row. Just don’t forget about “The Protege,” a film that hit unexpectedly and one I thoroughly enjoyed. It knew exactly what it needed to be and didn’t get melodramatic or make too many unnecessary pitstops along the way. From the very first scene to the last second reveal and direct credits, this one delivered.
Let’s hope we get more Q-led action thrillers and well-written heels for Keaton.