New Zealand-born director Martin Campbell is no slouch when it comes to the action genre. Sure, there was the stumble that was the thorn in Ryan Reynolds’ side, Green Lantern, and Beyond Borders, despite suitable work from both Angelina Jolie and Clive Owen, was a boring misstep, but having reinvigorated the Bond films at times when they needed them the most – he helmed both Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig’s first forays as 007 in GoldenEye and Casino Royale, respectively – is practically enough to give him a free pass when looking at The Protege.
Whilst there’s nothing particularly original about the film, and at times it’s unsure as to just what type of vibe it wants to commit to, it’s entirely a showcase for the captivating Maggie Q, a genre-capable actress who deserves so much more than this type of material but owns it wholeheartedly either way. Not just a physical threat but showcasing her comedic skills too, her Anna is a slick contract killer who moonlights in a rather niche profession – here she’s the proprietor of a vintage bookshop – that allows easy cover for her to take extended “business trips”.
Rescued as a young child by globetrotting assassin Moody (Samuel L. Jackson, enjoying himself in his typically scene-stealing fashion), the Vietnam-born Anna is taken under his wing, developing the skills she needs in order to survive a lifestyle that constantly puts her in harm’s way. As much as Jackson and Q have fun bouncing off each other and expressing their skills on screen in enjoyably violent set pieces, it’s the arrival of Michael Keaton‘s almost-suspiciously named Michael Rembrandt that truly livens up proceedings.
From the moment Anna and Michael meet the sexual tension is evident, and whilst we are more than aware that he’s going to play a significant part in her latest mission, we can’t help but be entirely sucked in by his greasy charm; it’s entirely implausible that both apparent professionals in their fields would allow the other to toy with them in such a manner, but it does make for appetising viewing.
You never know what Keaton is going to do, and that’s what keeps The Protege‘s standard action narrative far more compelling than it should be. And as much as he easily could have stolen the movie away from Q, Keaton’s presence only spurs her on, igniting a ferocity within that results in a slew of sexually-driven combat sequences that lean into screenwriter Richard Wenk‘s wink-wink temperament; the screenwriter overtly familiar with playing against the subtlety of the genre having penned The Equalizer and both the Jack Reacher and Expendables sequels.
An action spectacle that knows exactly the limitations it’s working with, managing to somehow be entirely enthralling during its 109 minute run and then completely forgettable, The Protege is a serviceable example of a film that knows better but commits to standard service with an enjoyable aplomb.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Protege is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.