Review: A Good—Not Great—Action Movie, The Protégé Fills a Summer Blockbuster Gap

More often than not with the new Maggie Q-starring action film The Protégé, you can see what the filmmakers are going for even if sometimes they don’t quite get there. But there’s enough going on in the movie that it remains interesting and fun enough to borderline recommend it to satisfy one’s need for a solid, no-frills action flick. The film opens with a young Vietnamese girl named Anna being discovered and rescued by a legendary assassin named Moody (Samuel L. Jackson). He stumbles upon her hiding in a room where a recent bloodbath has occurred, and Moody suspects that she is the one who did most of the killing, all in self defense. He sees something in her that justifies (in his mind) his taking her and training her to become one of the world’s deadliest killers for hire, as any good adoptive father would do. They often work together, and when we meet the adult Anna (played by Maggie Q), it’s right before Moody is brutally killed, triggering Anna to seek revenge and forcing her to do the one thing she did not want to: return to her native Vietnam. Protege Image courtesy of Lionsgate

Anna suspects that the job he was attempting to convince her to take with him was the reason he was killed, so she begins to dig for clues, eventually putting her in the sphere of an enigmatic and provocative older man named Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), who comes into the rare book store that she runs as a cover for her travel schedule and source of income. It’s this attraction between Anna and Rembrandt that is the most interesting and confounding thing about The Protégé. On the one hand, it makes sense that the type of man who she might be attracted to would be one that can match her in terms of ruthlessness and skill (naturally, it turns out Rembrandt is also a killer for hire, but he’s likely working for the person Anna believes might have killed Moody). The two have a pretty impressive, close-quarters fight scene that’s wonderfully brutal, while also being stunningly choreographed like a seductive dance. Their exchanges are intriguing enough to prop the movie up on those moments, but not quite enough to make up for the film’s other deficiencies.

Directed by action legend Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale, the two Zorro movies, even Green Lantern) and written by Richard Wenk (The Mechanic, The Equalizer movies, the Jack Reacher sequel, The Magnificent Seven remake), The Protégé is the first big summer movie in history to have an Asian woman as its lead, and that’s hugely important. But it’s not enough to make the movie work at every level. But Maggie Q is so confident both as an action star and as a powerful woman that she transcends Anna’s shortcomings and makes her a character in charge of her own destiny. I wish the film's dialogue was better written by Wenk and that the plot was something more than conventional, but Q and Keaton are so dynamic that they are greater than the sum of their parts in most moments.

I also liked that their chosen lifestyles both elevate the attraction but also get in the way, as they both begin to realize that they are at opposite ends of this fight and only one of them can win. The film sloppily deals with Anna’s childhood trauma toward the end of the film, and finally shows us exactly what happened to her just before Moody found her, but nothing about Maggie Q’s performance gives us any indication that that memory bothers her any more than the memories of the dozens of people she’s killed since. The action work in The Protégé is savage, the character work (as written) aspires for levels it doesn’t quite achieve, and the performances make up some of that difference where the script falls short. In the end, I think I was just excited to see a lowdown and dirty action movie again; it wasn’t necessarily good but it’s good enough for now.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.