The heroine of The Protégé, the new action thriller from director Martin Campbell — who rejuvenated the James Bond franchise in 2006 by mixing up a stiffer cocktail of the traditional ingredients of espionage, sex, and menace in Casino Royale — has strong 007 energy. She looks great in black (not a tux, but a tight bodysuit, wet-look leather, and high-heeled combat boots). She can’t seem to make up her mind whether to snuff out a nemesis or sleep with him. She’s got sophisticated taste — in this case for rare books, not martinis — and a license to kill.
OK, not exactly a license, but a learner’s permit.
Maggie Q’s Anna is the apprentice to Samuel L. Jackson’s Moody, a world-class assassin with the skills of a ninja and the professionalism of a master plumber. In fact, he phones his client after he and Anna have completed the Bucharest job that opens the film to report that the “leak has been fixed.” Bodies litter the work site, but otherwise the craftsmanship is impeccable.
Moody, who is just turning 70, with a nagging cough he should probably have someone look at, appears close to retirement, and to handing off his address book to Anna, whom he raised and trained after finding her as a child. In a prologue, we meet her, hiding in a cupboard in Vietnam in 1991, covered in blood and holding the gun she has just used to shoot her parents’ murderers. (A separate flashback, late in this occasionally gory-to-excess tale, shows her mom’s decapitated head, blood dripping from the neck.)
But when there’s a hit on Moody, the protégé becomes the protagonist, investigating tangled connections — and occasional dead ends — in pursuit of the men sent to murder her mentor, or, rather, the man who sent them. She’s a hit woman, yes, like the character this Jackie Chan-trained actress played in the TV series Nikita, but she’s also a bit of a snoop. The intrigue she uncovers and the sexual tension she encounters on the trail of her quarry, from a man named Michael Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), who thwarts her almost every step of the way, elevate The Protégé from a run-of-the-mill revenge thriller to a cut above the kind of fare one would expect from a movie like this, in the middle of August.
Like Anna herself, the film is polished and watchable, with a satisfying third-act twist that nicely upends much of what has come before it. The screenplay by Richard Weck (of Denzel Washington’s Equalizer films) is sharp and surprisingly intelligent for a narrative that involves so much blunt force trauma, with some nicely self-aware winking at the conventions of the genre. One set piece in particular, in which Anna and Rembrandt engage in a potentially lethal pas de deux — striking, shooting, and stabbing at each other, to the tune of Isaac Hayes’s “That Loving Feeling,” before falling into the sack — is both over-the-top silly and good, snarky fun, if you’re in the mood.
There’s actually some potential here for a franchise that flips the gender expectations of action movies without totally caving to the sexpot assassin stereotype. Q’s Anna is no more and no less of an object than Daniel Craig’s Bond (whom we’ll see in one final outing this fall, when No Time to Die arrives.)
True to his name, Keaton’s Rembrandt is something of an artist at what he does, which he describes as a kind of “cleanup” (even though he’s more than happy to make a mess, when called upon to do so). The Protégé may not rise to the level of art, but like Anna herself, it does demonstrate a mastery of a certain set of skills, however limited.
Action/thriller, rated R, 120 minutes, Regal Santa Fe Place, Violet Crown, 2.5 chiles