What do you get when you utilize the talents of the director of Casino Royale (2006), the writer of the modern Equalizer films, Nick Fury his ownself, and the star of the Nikita live-action series? Some super-slick spy-like mayhem amid an emotionally heavy narrative. This is the simplest way to describe The Protégé from director Martin Campbell, writer Richard Wenk, and starring Samuel L. Jackson and Maggie Q. “Simplest” doesn’t always mean most complete, as The Protégé plays within its genre, taking full advantage of Jackson’s charm and swagger, as well as Q’s physical skills. It all comes together nicely, offering some quality escapism with the opportunity for a fresh franchise you’ll want to see more from.
By all accounts, Anna (Q) leads an unassuming life as the operator of an antique bookstore in London. She works, goes for runs, and occasionally spends time with her adoptive father Moody (Jackson). It’s what she and Moody do together, though, that would turn heads in daylight. They are hitmen who specialize in getting to bad people that can’t be gotten to. They may be bad guys, but they justify it by recognizing the evil they remove from the world. But evil doesn’t go down quietly, even if you think its buried in the past. Anna learns this the hard way when Moody is killed and all the clues leading toward the one place she never wants to go: her home in Vietnam.
You can see familiar elements from the Equalizer films, that sort of seedy horrors that happen behind the veneer of normal life that a highly-trained, almost perfect, fighter navigates with relative ease. It’s an absolute high-wire act that mostly succeeds because of all the things that the creative team and cast bring to it. This doesn’t mean that The Protégé is uninspired, not at all, it’s that the film resides within a familiar narrative trench which it then uses to cultivate a few outstanding surprises. In fact, to offset the serious thematic nature of the narrative, the irreverence from the cast makes everything far more palatable, planting a desire for more. This also allows the audience to believe that Anna is as intelligent and as predictive as she is and, most importantly, empowers Q to be an unequivocal badass. For other films in the revenge-thriller subgenre, the opening and closing moments would be the biggest pieces with a few others maybe sprinkled throughout. The Protégé doesn’t work like that, offering different physical engagements which not only continually prove that Anna isn’t to be underestimated, thereby constantly building her mythos. Each one tackles a different aspect of her abilities, making them feel different enough to instill excitement with each entanglement. Additionally, what’s impressive about the script is how it focuses on Anna’s intelligence as much as her skillset. Like how the best heist films are like mysteries that the audience may or not be in on, situations are set-up so that the audience isn’t always privy to Anna’s plans, putting us on edge for what we don’t know or leaving us waiting in anticipation for what we do. One thing aiding the enjoyment is that the style and cinematography forgo the obvious John Wick of it all (an aspect played up in the marketing), offering something more grounded and typical of thrillers. That the film opts for this makes the film appear less cookie-cutter from the House of Wick and more original, in its own way.
It certainly helps that the central cast maintains the heightened nature of the assassins-haunted-by-their-past-while-running-for-their-lives narrative with performances that’ll leave you cackling. It’s not that the film is intentionally going for comedy, it’s that the circumstances are so ridiculous and the cast is so capable that you can’t help but giggle, snort, or gasp at some of the line deliveries that come from the performers’ self-assuredness. Audiences familiar with Jackson’s work understand his range; however, unlike his performance in the recent Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021), Jackson’s Moody is hilarious and kind, while being a cold-blooded killer. It’s the kind of performance that would be hammy in someone else’s hands, but feels cozy and comfortable in his. Q, too, oscillates Anna between murderous and charming with such ease that it would be unsettling if not for the slight wink-and-smile her performance includes. What will surprise none is that her best scenes, stunt or traditional, are when she’s opposite either Jackson or fellow co-star Michael Keaton (Batman/Mr. Mom). This is where the narrative really gets meaty and interesting. Plus, it allows Keaton to tap into a wiliness we haven’t seen in some time. His early work leaned on his comedy and trouble-making smile. Add in the actor’s lengthy experience and you’ve got a scene-partner that’s clearly up for anything. Few actors could make a date/interrogation scene as deadly, sexy, and hilarious as Q and Keaton.
For all that works, the story behind the story is where things get weak. Q’s Anna has a lot of unpacked trauma. It’s not because of her work as an assassin, she’s completely good with that given the moral code she’s learned from Moody, but from the inciting incident bestowed upon her character. It’s gruesome and heartbreaking, making it mostly a tonal mismatch for the rest of the film. Giving it some thought, one might presume that Anna’s trauma is tangentially connected to the greater villain of The Protégé, but that’s not explicitly made and, therefore, just seems like something concocted in order to put Moody in Anna’s life. What’s most troubling, though, are the questions raised as to why the characters meet in the first place, especially when the circumstances established in the opening sequence are explored past the surface. If my theory is correct, it makes Moody a bigger bastard than the film wants us to believe. It’s precisely for this reason that I’m hopeful for any upcoming home video release including director or writer commentary or a featurette to explain the Moody-Anna relationship more concretely.
The Protégé is the kind of film where you get exactly what you pay for: a few thrills, some intrigue, and an overall good time. If Campbell, Wenk, and Q wanted to use this as a jumping off point for more stories, I’d absolutely be along for the ride. With the exception of a few, sequels offer the opportunity to expand on the things which didn’t quite work in the initial outing and, with so few things needing that kind of adjustment here, a follow-up feels like a no-brainer.
In theaters August 20th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official The Protégé website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.