The Protégé

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Maggie Q in Protege.
Maggie Q in Protege.
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The Protégé


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3.5/5 Stars


Anna (Maggie Q) was a young Vietnamese girl who had just watched her family be brutally murdered by a group of mobsters when she was found by top assassin, Moody (Samuel L Jackson), who brought her with him back to the United States. Thirty years later, Anna is every bit Moody’s equal as one of the world’s most sought out hitmen, working together with her mentor and father figure, to become one of the most lethal duos on the planet. When Moody is suddenly murdered, however, Anna finds herself alone once again, on the run and hunting the people who have once again ripped apart her life.   


This might seem like a strange thing to say about a woman who has worked as a professional actor for the past two decades, appearing in major blockbusters like Mission Impossible III, voicing Wonder Woman on the animated series Young Justice, and even headlining her own, fairly successful TV show, Nikita – but where the hell has Maggie Q been hiding? She's been around, sure, but based on the evidence of the otherwise solid but flawed action-thriller at hand, why on earth is she not one of the biggest action stars on the planet?

The Protégé is about as generic as its title suggests (its alternative title in some territories, The Asset, is even worse even if just by virtue of having little to do with the film itself), and you don't have to scratch too hard to find the multitudes of films it unabashedly cribs off of – Leon: The Professional being the most obvious touchstone – but despite some sniffy overseas reviews, it is leagues above most of the glorified, direct-to-video action-thrillers that have clogged up streaming services and cinemas for the past few years. And it all comes down to Maggie Q.

Not that there isn't some seriously impressive talent both in front of and behind the camera that already goes some way towards elevating The Protégé's frankly convoluted, perplexing, but ultimately stupid plot.

The script itself by Richard Wenk (The Equalizer, The Magnificent Seven remake) does at least provide some perfectly decent action-flick one-liners and some good, old fashioned repertoire, while at least hinting towards greater depth for its main characters, but the writing is clearly the film's weakest point. Not only is the basic plot just really not up to snuff, tonally, the film is a bit of an odd duck. It's mostly slick, silly, and entertaining, but there are some moments of bloody, and quite serious, brutality that never entirely sits right with everything else that's going on. 

Part of that tonal inconsistency certainly also comes from the direction, of course, but director Martin Campbell mostly acquits himself rather well. Campbell is a veteran action-movie director whose lengthy but non-prolific career has real high points (he's the James Bond renovator behind both Goldeneye and Casino Royale) and a couple of very low points (Green Lantern!) but mostly turns out unspectacular but basically solid Saturday night entertainment. There's something quite old fashioned about his work and that, as it turns out, is exactly what The Protégé needed.

Most crucially, the action scenes are not over-edited to within an inch of their life, making them nicely crunchy, imaginatively choreographed and, best of all, perfectly intelligible. Campbell also keeps the whole thing both unpretentious and moving at a steady clip, giving plenty of space for both the action set pieces and the quieter moments that are so crucial in creating characters that we actually care about.

The whole production, in general, is actually of a pretty high calibre. Cinematography, editing, choreography, production values, and art design – this may be a glorified B movie, but it's one that actually earns its place in cinemas. It's also a pretty great advert for Vietnam's tourism bureau.

Again, though, all of this means nothing without Maggie Q. It has a top-notch supporting cast, too, in the form of Samuel L Jackson (flashbacks give him a much bigger role than that synopsis suggests), Robert Patrick and Michael Keaton, but many similarly great actors have been wasted on generic action-thrillers. Not so here, as they do actually elevate even the weaker material primarily because of how well they all play against the fabulous Ms Q.

Keaton, especially, has been enjoying a real career renaissance of late, and he continues that streak here as the main villain's right-hand man and "problem solver". Considering how much a non-entity that "Big Bad" turned out to be, it's probably best just to consider Keaton's Michael Rembrandt (no, really) to be the film's primary antagonist, and he is both wonderfully sinister and perversely likeable in that role. Very nearly every scene in which he appears, however, is opposite Maggie Q, and it is their deadly, playful, antagonistic, violent and undeniably sexually-charged dynamic that drives the film. This despite a thirty-year age gap.

Which brings us neatly back to Maggie Q herself. It's not just that she has the sexiness, beauty and physical ability to pull off this sort of lethal femme fatale, but she brings a real warmth and humanity to a role that could so easily slide into generic "grrrl power" posturing. There's a depth and a vulnerability to Anna that seems to come mostly from how Q plays her as much as from anything, presumably, in the script itself. We are at a point now – very happily – where kick-ass female action heroes are a dime a dozen (this comes out just a week after Gunpowder Milkshake, after all), but Maggie Q really manages to stand out from the crowd.

It's only a pity that it took so long for us (or, quite possibly, me) to notice her.


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