Maggie Q, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, and Robert Patrick sign up to be in a movie together. This isn’t the start of a joke, but four compelling reasons why you should check out The Protégé, directed by Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) and written by Richard Wenk (The Equalizer). Though not exactly a critical hit (sits at a 62% rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this writing), The Protégé delivers on its promise of action while offering some great showcases for its cast in the process. It’s not that anyone really needs reminders of how badass Q is, how adaptable Jackson is, or how dependable Patrick is, but folks may have forgotten how capable Keaton is in a variety of genres, and this performance serves as a great reminder. Is the film perfect in tone or subtext? Not exactly, no, but that doesn’t prevent it from being smart in its execution of physical combat, presenting a femme fatale who is just as dangerous as the reputation she’s developed claims her to be. If this were the start of a franchise, I’d be one of the first to buy a ticket. As it stands now, all we can do is enjoy this specific adventure as often as we like via home video.
When people look at Anna (Q), all they may see is a polished antique bookstore owner who delights in the company of friends and excises her energies through athletics. This is the side of Anna you want to know for the other side, the one that pays for her bookstore and the rare items she’s able to stock it with is supported by blood and death. See, Anna is a hired assassin who works alongside her mentor and father-figure Moody (Jackson) to take out bad guys that can’t be reached through reasonable means. As a pair, they are neigh-unstoppable given their trust and training. But this foundation is built upon a traumatic event that touched them both separately long ago. Anything hidden in the past, though, rarely stays away and it’s here that Moody finds his blood-soaked end. Seeking answers and vengeance, Anna takes a journey to Vietnam, facing what she fears in an effort to put the past to rest.
If you’d like to learn about Maggie Q’s experience making The Protégé, make sure to check out EoM partner Noel T. Manning’s interview with the lead actor. Similarly, if you’d like to learn about The Protégé without spoilers, I encourage you to stop here and go to the spoiler-free theatrical review. Moving forward, there will be discussion of details in the film.
A film like The Protégé wants its audience to believe in the power and skill of its central figures. Often this means a bombastic introduction followed by a lot of failure until a dramatic comeback in the end. This is not the case with Wenk’s script. Rather, Anna is presented as clever and strong and this is never diminished. Is she able to be overpowered, taken down a peg or two, and hurt? Yes. But it never occurs in a way that doesn’t seem unreasonable for the situation. The opening sets up the audience’s expectation for how skilled Anna is in the way that she takes out their target, a hard to reach gang boss who is infiltrated by Anna posing as a courier for a ransom drop. Viewed as delicate and harmless, she’s able to get in close and deliver a deadly blow to the target’s neck before incapacitating his guards and walking out to her freedom. Later, when she’s gone looking for Moody’s killer, we see her set up several pieces of a plan that we don’t understand until she puts them to use, demonstrating that Anna doesn’t walk into any situation without having considered or put in motion several tactics to have at her disposal. This makes the initial confrontation with Ray Fearon’s Duquet sublime as the audience is lulled into a certain expectation only to have that be eradicated before us. All of this work early in the film elevates the final confrontation between Anna and Keaton’s fixer Rembrandt from a mere cat-and-mouse game to chess, which Rembrandt had no hope of winning. Too often films with a female lead in the action thriller genre tend to grant them a high reputation and then spend the rest of the film making them earn it. That Campbell and Wenk disregard this exhausting trope, opting instead for situations where Anna may be outnumbered but rarely outsmarted is beyond refreshing.
Where the film struggles, in my humble opinion, is in the journey of the film and that some of the details within the universe are left to the imagination. What do I mean by journey? Well, the film has too many masters to manage within the run-time. I’ve no issue with the opening of the film establishing that Moody finds Anna holed up in the remnants of a massacre. It’s the kind of trauma that could kick off the kind of person who becomes comfortable killing people. I’ve no problem with the reason Moody is in Vietnam being the reason that he ends up dead, forcing Anna to go back to the country she’s never wanted to return to. The issue, if I may, is that having her return to the place where Moody found her brings up two issues: (1) there was already closure from the confrontation on the island that enabled the narrative conflicts to be resolved and (2) it creates more questions about Moody’s connection to the people who kidnapped and almost raped a very young Anna. Throughout the film, we’re shown that Anna has unresolved trauma and it’s presented in a way that is natural, never undercutting her ability to handle the situation. We’re also shown that Rembrandt, who is working for the bad guy, is far more of a realist than loyal. So that the film would have Rembrandt track down Anna in a fight to the death, well, it’s cool to watch, but it seems like the kind of thing that could be avoided since Rembrandt’s boss is dead by this point and the film as spent so much time highlighting the chemistry between the two. It’s fine that theirs is a doomed relationship given the lives they lead, yet was there a need for it to happen and in the place where Anna “life” began? It doesn’t actually close any loops for Anna in the return. Instead, she just kills someone else and moves on. There’s no resolution as a metaphor, there’s no taking back anything, just more death. What makes things worse is, in the flashback that accompanies this return, we see that Moody was coming to this place for a specific reason. Does this mean that he was in league with the people who murdered Anna’s family and kidnapped her? It’s not a coincidence, so what was the connection. To my great frustration, there’s no answer offered in the included audio commentary from Campbell.
What the film does well, though, is present a thoughtful and well-executed action thriller with stunts that highlight the characters as much as raise stakes and move the narrative along. All of this can be witnessed for yourself via the two featurettes included on the home release in every format. The longest one, “Scars of the Past: Making The Protégé,” covers everything about the shoot from the approach of the actors (the parts with Keaton are fascinating), the production design, direction, and script, but also how COVID-19 played a large part in their adaptation of locations. “Scars” runs 37 minutes and is about as in-depth as you can get on a production. One of the highlight stunt sequences in the film is the “Anna vs Rembrandt” sequence where the two duke it out in an apartment. In just under eight minutes, this second featurette shows off how they pulled off the tone and technical aspects to make it work. I’m not shocked at all that Keaton was game to be blasted backward and covered in milk (the man was a comedic actor before taking on more dramatic roles) in order to insert some natural comedy into the fisticuffs. The single deleted scene doesn’t do much more than highlight Anna’s personal life. While an amusing scene, it doesn’t add anything that the rest of the film doesn’t accomplish.
Even on a second pass The Protégé entertains and I stand by my desire to watch more adventures with Maggie Q’s Anna. Forget the argument that the new James Bond should be a female-presenting actor when we could, instead, raise up a different character and go for rides with them. There’s always going to be bad people in desperate need of removal and Q’s got the chops for the physical and emotional work that make-up the DNA of action thrillers. Even more, Q doesn’t appear to be sleepwalking through it like some aging male actors in their latest straight-to-VOD release. There’s an opportunity here to see where Anna goes and, I think, it would be a missed opportunity not to explore it.
The Protégé Special Features:
- Feature-length audio commentary with director Martin Campbell (1:48:53)
- Scars of the Past: Making The Protégé Featurette (37:10)
- Anna vs Rembrandt Featurette (7:58)
- One (1) Deleted Scene (1:48)
- Theatrical Trailer
Available on digital September 21st, 2021.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD October 19th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official The Protégé website.