The phrase “that movie doesn’t exist” is one I don’t use often, and certainly not in regards to movies released after 2019. Given the current state of the industry, if a studio wants to move the needle on box office returns, a movie needs to make an impression–good, bad or otherwise. Middle-of-the-road theatrical releases are a relic from a time when going to a theater just for the sake of getting out of the house was something we could do with abandon. Were we ever so fortunate?
All this is to say, The Protégé is a movie that doesn’t exist, the kind of film destined to live on hotel pay-per-view and airline in-flight catalogues. It’s a moderately engaging thriller with story elements that are poorly explained, or don’t quite make sense. Even the film’s technical aspects feel lackluster, with edits and sound design choices that undermine the action. It works best as background noise, or time filler, something that feels like a nostalgic luxury these days, and not in a good way.
Maggie Q is Anna, an assassin brought up in the life by her surrogate father, Moody (Samuel L. Jackson), who took her in as a child in Vietnam. Anna and Moody’s services come at high prices that afford them lives of insane wealth when they aren’t hunting down targets–she runs a rare bookshop in London, he lives in a palatial estate. When Moody is killed searching for the son of a target he wants to make amends to, Anna goes looking for revenge. Her journey brings Anna back to Vietnam, and into the crosshairs of Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), a fellow killer-for-hire whose interest in her goes beyond professional boundaries.
The Protégé takes place primarily in cushy apartments and hotel suites, filled with furnishings and artifacts that are comforting to look at while they’re being shot up. There are a couple of solid action sequences, one in particular involving a balletic bounce off a taxi. There is, however, little else to recommend here. The twisty plot and its eventual big bad are so poorly explained, and the villain so sparingly introduced, that by the time the climax arrives, it’s difficult to remember why our characters are here, or what the endgame is. Keaton seems oddly cast as a rival/romantic lead here–it’s the kind of role that would have made sense for him about a decade ago, but doesn’t quite fit the genial-but-grumpy persona he’s made his way to.
There are moments in The Protégé that hint at a more interesting film that could’ve been. Director Martin Campbell provides smidgens of self-aware humor and occasional smolder that harken back to the movies he made in the 90s and early 2000s. As someone who’s made The Mask of Zorro a regular pandemic comfort re-watch, I feel I can say with confidence that a genuinely fun, sexy action film is squarely in Campbell’s wheelhouse, and would be more than welcome right now. It’s a bit of a bummer to see that opportunity so thoroughly lost.
“The Protégé is out Friday in theaters.