For a not insignificant portion of The Protege‘s running time, the plot is incidental but also unclear. I found myself forgetting why assassin Anna (Maggie Q) was kicking the rear ends of the various henchmen of a shady and mysterious rich guy. There’s two of them actually as the main villain shifts from time to time. The more constant presence is Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), who also works for the crime syndicate but doesn’t fall victim to Anna’s skull crushing skills. She seems to want him around.
The interplay between them indicates a screenplay flirting with a desire to branch beyond its pulverizing 90s era action tropes. This feels like more of a direct to video title than a direct to streaming affair. Because of its similarities to that time period three decades ago, it only feels right that Samuel L. Jackson participates. He’s Moody and in a 1991 prologue, he rescues young Anna after her family is brutally murdered in her native Vietnam. Actually rescue is the wrong word. He finds her and becomes her mentor. It was Anna who exacted revenge on the killers.
Moody is an assassin for hire and since this is a movie, he generally only offs really evil people. Anna is a chip off the old block and they form a lucrative business exterminating such vermin. She masquerades as a rare book store owner in London and that’s when she first encounters Rembrandt. He’s mysteriously connected to a former mark of Moody’s. Just the mention of his name (Edward Davis) causes holes in people’s heads and it leads Anna back to ‘Nam to investigate.
The Protege is quick, violent, and nicely cast. Q is a convincing action heroine and the familiar faces of Keaton and Jackson are welcome… to a point. The Anna/Rembrandt dynamic feels alternately fascinating (there’s a nice little Heat restaurant type of sequence between them) or tiresome depending on which act we’ve reached. The “twists” aren’t too twisty when considering the actors playing the roles and the expected amount of screen time they’d be granted. Martin Campbell (best known for kicking off 007 eras with Goldeneye and Casino Royale) knows what he’s doing with action sequences though he’s absolutely done better.
This is a generic shoot-em-up that should partly satisfy cravings of genre enthusiasts who like it lean, mean, and rather dumb. With Keaton quipping, I kept expecting The Protege to enter self parody territory. It never does and if it had, we might be entering a guilty pleasure experience that hit harder. I wouldn’t call this bad by any means, but it’s not a blast either.
**1/2 (out of four)