Decades after he rescued her from a gang headquarters in Da Nang, Vietnam, Anna (Maggie Q) works as a world-class assassin under the tutelage of her mentor, Moody (Samuel L. Jackson, who could do this stuff in his sleep but never does).
When Moody is killed by an unknown assailant, Anna resolves to track down those responsible. Cue ghosts from the past, a cat-and-mouse game with rival/love interest Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), and a steadily rising body count.
We get plenty of shoot outs, some impressive close quarters combat, and a fantastic fight between Q and Keaton that splits the difference between ‘battle to the death’ and ‘seduction scene’. There are points where it gets a touch too brutal—a late-in-the-game decapitation is a head too far—but the choreography and staging are pretty great.
And so too is Q, who really ought to be a bigger action star than she is. After all, she was the third (or fifth, depending on how you’re counting) actor to play Luc Besson’s iconic assassin Nikita, and has cropped up in the Mission: Impossible and Die Hard franchises over the years. Here she gets to be tough and sexy, playful and driven, and to kill an awful lot of people.
Her chemistry with both Jackson and Keaton sells the drama even when the plot gets a little woolly. For his part Keaton, whose last action outing was in the dreadful American Assassin, is clearly having a ball as the charming sorta-villain Rembrandt, letting his trademark charm slip now and again to reveal steely ruthlessness.
But there’s that plot…by and large, the story in action movies mostly exists to link action set pieces, and if you get something a little more intricate (say, Die Hard) or emotionally resonant (again, Die Hard) that’s a bonus.
Screenwriter Richard Wenk, who has been specialising in action since 2006’s 16 Blocks, achieves the fundamentals, but every complication that seems to be pushing the story towards something more elevated instead only serves to muddy the waters. The Vietnam backstory seems to be a holdover from the prior generation’s Back-to-’Nam action subgenre, the multiple surprise revelations and bait-and-switch plotting don’t add up to much, and the ultimate villain is less than memorable.
In the end, The Protégé doesn’t leave us too far from where we started in terms of character development and story, but in the tight 109 minutes it takes to tell its tale, it gifts us with some fun performances and impressive action. That may sound like faint praise, but sometimes this kind of meat-and-potatoes action programming is exactly what you need for an evening’s entertainment.