What’s with the generic title in Martin Campbell’s films these days? First, we have The Foreigner four years ago, the one which starred Jackie Chan in a rare dead-serious role of a grieving father who vows revenge for his daughter’s death. And now, Campbell returns with another generically titled action thriller called The Protégé, where it was initially known as The Asset back when the film was first announced in late 2019. The Protégé also sees Campbell exploring his recurring theme of vengeance — something that he’s been fond of these days since the Mel Gibson-starred Edge of Darkness in 2010.
The Protégé follows Anna (Maggie Q), a highly-skilled contract killer seeking vengeance after his mentor and father figure Moody (Samuel L. Jackson) is brutally murdered. We learned that Moody used to rescue her in Vietnam when she was a child (Eva Nugyen Thorsen) and trained her to become a killer ever since. As Anna sets out to find out the people responsible for killing Moody, she crosses paths with Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), a mysterious killer from her past who may or may not have to do with Moody’s death.
If you can look past its all-too-conventional title, the film does look promising. Well, at least to a certain extent, beginning with its well-paced first 10 minutes detailing Anna’s assignment in Bucharest. The film then slows down the pace to make way for establishing the relationship between Anna and Moody. So far so good but as the film goes on, it feels as if it tries too hard not to restrict The Protégé merely as a straightforward revenge thriller.
Instead, in Richard Wenk’s screenplay, the film attempts to delve deeper into the shady conspiracy surrounding Moody’s death and Anna’s personal vendetta in tracking down the killer. The story also deals with the would-be complexity of the character dynamics between Anna and Rembrandt — both professional killers who apparently shared mutual attraction as much as they don’t mind fighting or shooting against each other under forced circumstances.
It may seem intriguing on paper but the overall execution is sadly muddled. Right to the point where certain story elements are either haphazardly told or curiously incomplete. Take the relationship involving Anna and Rembrandt, for instance. While I do enjoy the love-hate interaction between them, thanks to fine acting work from Maggie Q and Michael Keaton, the film somewhat shortchanged their potential character development in favour of a choppy narrative structure.
As a result, The Protégé suffers from a bumpy ride desperately needed a good script doctor to patch up the inconsistencies within Wenk’s screenplay. Of course, this isn’t the first time Wenk working on a potentially good but lacklustre screenplay that manages to attract a lot of high-profile talents in the past, stretching way back to 2006 where he wrote Richard Donner’s race-against-the-time thriller 16 Blocks. That film, which was supposed to be Donner’s comeback to the action-movie territory ended up as a disappointment. The same also goes for his seemingly ambitious contributions in other films like The Equalizer (2014) and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016), both of which failed to live up to their expectations.
Whereas the story is a letdown, the film still has its few worthwhile moments. Campbell has a knack for making his action sequences both visceral and visually propulsive even on a mid-budget genre film like The Protégé. Committed to showcasing as many practical stunts as possible, the action regardless of hand-to-hand combats and gunfights are among the least lifesavers here.
And it also helps when Maggie Q, who is no stranger to playing physically demanding roles since her earlier days in Hong Kong action cinema, did most of her own stunts in this film. You got to admire her sheer dedication of pulling off such a role even after she just recuperating from a major spine surgery while filming The Protégé. Not to mention playing a killer is what she does best, given her prior experience in Naked Weapon (2002) and of course, her popular TV series in Nikita (2010-2013). What I like about her character isn’t just the way she handles the action role but also how the film manages to make her a flawed individual. Despite her profession as a contract killer, she isn’t the indestructible kind capable of walking away unscathed after taking down her enemies. She can be vulnerable both physically and even emotionally, even though the latter isn’t fully realised.
Michael Keaton, on the other hand, does a good job playing a professional killer and even if his character motivations are hindered by weak writing, he displays enough charisma to his role. He even had a few good action scenes, notably his one-one duel against Maggie Q’s Anna and another one where he single-handedly takes down a group of people trying to kill him. Samuel L. Jackson provides decent support as Moody while Robert Patrick shows up in a small role as the leader of a biker gang, who knows Anna but too bad his character is written more like an afterthought.
Frankly, The Protégé could have been a great action thriller if not for Wenk’s disappointed screenplay and erratic pacing. And even with Campbell’s engaging direction in the action department and some commendable performances included, it isn’t enough to offset most of the film’s major shortcomings.
Disclosure: I have also reviewed The Protégé for The Cinemaholic. Please note that the content of the above review is completely different from the one published at The Cinemaholic.