The Protégé film review: Maggie Q regales as action star in a film that rehashes her hit series Nikita
The Protégé fails to capitalise on impressive acts from Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton owing to its jaded narrative
castMaggie Q, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Robert Patrick, Ray Fearon
Once upon a time, about a decade ago, action star Maggie Q scored big with the TV series Nikita. Q, whose fame as a global action star continues to rest on the show, revisits the template with The Protégé, a film that blindly echoes the Nikita plot about an orphan kid being shaped into a brutal assassin, who eventually becomes the archetypal avenging angel. The outcome is jaded, and Q’s latest could seem like a discarded draft for a new season of the series that never did take off.
You could, of course, note that Nikita itself was French maverick Luc Besson’s remake of his own action gem of 1990, La Femme Nikita, and hence not entirely original work. The problem with The Protégé is the film’s director Martin Campbell misses out on the insane edge Besson rendered to violence, as well as the latter’s ability to provide the story with a solid emotional core. (Incidentally, Campbell’s Besson hangover doesn’t end with content and execution. Quite amusing how he chooses to name Maggie Q’s character Anna — that was the name of Besson’s last-released film in 2019 starring Russian supermodel Sasha Luss as the titular action hero).
Hardcore Maggie Q fans won’t complain. Her latest act as a hired gun should keep them happy, as she hits glorious kick-butt mode rather than mouth too many lines. As Anna Dutton, raised to be a cold killer, she sets afire a stylishly-choreographed character prototype and is sleekly photographed (David Tattersall) to look amazing even in scenes that throw her at the wrong end of torture.
Richard Wenk’s writing was always meant to cash in on cliches. The script introduces Anna as a child (played by Eva Nguyen Thorsen), rescued by the legendary hitman Moody Dutton (Samuel L. Jackson) from what appears to be a scene violent bloodbath. Moody raises Anna to be a contract killer and, as Maggie Q takes over the role, the girl grows up to be the deadliest in business.
Wenk, famed for his scripts of The Equalizer franchise, knows the business of setting up stunt sequences in an action narrative only too well. Too bad, he fails to provide the same inertia when it comes to penning novelty in storyline. The primary twist that triggers off the screenplay is banal. Moody is brutally killed in his own home, which sets Anna on the path of revenge.
Thrown into the script are a couple of random oddball characters meant to heighten intrigue. Michael Keaton enters the story as Rembrandt, a customer we first meet at a bookstore that Anna runs. He is ostensibly looking for a rare gift, and that first interaction with Anna makes it obvious that the makers want you to believe Rembrandt is a man with an element of mystery about him, and could perhaps be dangerous. Anna’s paths will cross Rembrandt’s, of course, besides the evil lawyer Duquet (Ray Fearon), and the two will be pivotal in her tale of revenge.
The cat-and-mouse game that Anna and the villains engage in is wholly meant to highlight Maggie Q’s billing as an action star. Predictably, there are quite a few villains in this story, to keep the action coming in and to remind fans of the actress’ epochal run with Nikita.
As the glossy pack of clichés plays out its runtime of less than 110 minutes, you can’t but be surprised noting the director’s name in the credits. Martin Campbell’s career of close to half a century, after all, presents him as a prolific filmmaker, who has called the shots with equal flair on the survival thriller (Vertical Limit), the romantic drama (Beyond Borders), the sex comedy (Eskimo Nell), the sci-fi drama (No Escape), the legal thriller (Criminal Law, Defenseless), even two Zorro films. He has redefined James Bond twice (Golden Eye for Pierce Brosnan and Casino Royale for Daniel Craig), and even had a brush with the DC superhero (Green Lantern).
Aping Luc Besson’s oeuvre would perhaps be the last thing that comes to mind when you think Campbell. Perhaps the director wanted to try out a sort of mainstream entertainer he has never attempted before. But then, he needed to go slower with set-piece action for any impact whatsoever. Dig deeper beneath the heady violence, and you realise the suspense drama is too flimsy to sustain interest.
The film is mostly watchable for its performances. Maggie Q finds herself on familiar terrain and she relishes her new job as a contract killer. Her act may remind you of Nikita or Naked Weapon, and hark back to her numerous action sequences in Stalker, Mission: Impossible III or Die Hard 4, but she still manages to look good pulling off the stunts. Q’s ability to tower over the mediocre script becomes all the more evident when you consider her performance doesn’t really add anything new to the genre of action movie or the action prototype she plays out. If the avenging assassin remains among Hollywood’s favourite mantras to woo the mass market of action films, Q’s new film looks fated to feature as a footnote in the book of assassin flicks.
The element of predictability about the film also affects the roles that Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton, the two heavy-weights among the supporting cast, get to play. With Jackson, mentoring/supervising younger heroes seems to have become a staple job in commercial Hollywood (think Nick Fury in the Marvel adventures). In The Protégé, he adds value to his role by mixing action and drama with trademark wry rendition.
Keaton adds dapper appeal to Rembrandt, and the screenplay reserves an enjoyable equation of exchanges between his antagonist and Q’s protagonist. Their interactions, loaded in equal measure with flirtatious nothings and dangerous mind games, bring alive an otherwise forgettable film.
Makers of The Protégé would have done well to utilise these impressive acts to craft a fresher, smarter film. After all, from Leon to John Wick, via Anton Chigurh, Hanna, Jason Bourne and The Bride, the new-age Hollywood assassin has truly killed it with class, time and again.
Rating: * * 1/2
Vinayak Chakravorty is a senior film critic, columnist, and film journalist based in Delhi-NCR.
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