Maggie Q kicks all the ass in The Protégé, but can’t kick the film into shape
Maggie Q, the DivergentDivergent and Nikita actress, deserves a leading role. But Maggie Q doesn’t get The Protege. The Protege is a by-the-numbers action movie about a lady assassin. It only feels bold in its willingness to challenge the alliterative title pattern of this subgenre. It’s all pretty standard post-John Wick stuff. A gorgeous female killer is betrayed and becomes a vengeful woman, causing a flurry of violence in foreign locales. Although “Murder me Maggie Q” would be a fitting response to The Protege’s request, it is a bit too easy to give in and watch a lot of silliness.
The Protege, a movie about a woman men make, is often the case in this subgenre. Director Martin Campbell and writer Richard Wenk craft their titular character with the usual unsurprisingly bland blend of gender stereotypes. Anna Dutton (Maggie Q), a badass, can identify guns by their sound when entering the chamber. She also wears Manolo Blahniks as well as designer clothes. She bakes apple pies from scratch in her multi-thousand-dollar La Cornue oven and can power through numerous waterboarding sessions without losing her cool. It’s only because of her impenetrable self-assuredness that the character holds together at all, and only because of her commitment as a martial artist and stuntwoman that the action scenes have any verve or thrill. She can’t keep up with the men around her, and it is only men.
The Protege starts in Vietnam in 1991 when Moody Dutton (Samuel L. Jackson), an assassin, takes Anna under his wing. She’s a young girl (Eva Nguyen Thorsen) with a gun in hand and a slew of rebels’ bodies all around. Thirty years later, this girl is Anna, Moody’s close friend and partner at the gun-for-hire business. They live in luxury in London, with top-tier cars and palatial homes. They also do jobs throughout Europe and are each other’s only true family.
Three events alter Anna’s life shortly after Moody turns 70. He first asks Anna to find out about a 9-year old boy named Lucas Hayes, who Moody was responsible for protecting in Vietnam in the 1990s. However, Lucas disappeared when Edward, a well-known war criminal, was hit by a car bomb. Anna is also introduced to Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), a mysterious man who flirts with Anna by quoting Edgar Allan Poe, calling her “interesting” and saying that he will take her back to Vietnam to answer his questions.
Apart from the “female killer goes home to be whole” trope that Black Widow is familiar with, The Protege becomes a pretext made up of different agendas, hidden identities and shares histories. This is all wrapped around Anna. Maggie Q spends most of her scenes with male characters decades older than herself: Keaton, her father figure, Jackson, and Robert Patrick, who plays a motorbike-riding ally named Billy Boy.
Each actor brings their own late-career energy. Jackson is in the same role he was in both Hitman’s Bodyguard movies. Keaton is essentially reprising Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming. The familiarity of these roles makes it easy to watch, but Anna’s pairings are also infused with a sense of repetitiveness. She’s not treated as a trainee or wunderkind, but as someone everyone loves. This dynamic gives Anna a certain ickiness as the film pits her against Keaton, their bodies grinding in what we assume to be sex. Campbell and Wenk can show exploded heads or blood splatters from murdered children. However, they are strangely hesitant to show Maggie Q and Keaton kissing.