The Protege

I don’t know if Maggie Q thinks of herself as an action star. She’s a good actress, and in recent years she’s been in horror movies and thrillers and on Designated Survivor, and she has a new sitcom coming soon. Maybe one of her best known roles was the title character in Nikita, where I assume she kicked a multitude of asses every week, but it’s not like anybody puts the original TV Nikita Peta Wilson or the original movie Nikita Anne Parillaud or the second movie version Bridget Fonda in a category with Jean-Claude Van Damme and those guys. They’re just actors without much association to the genre.

But I respect that Q specifically came out of Hong Kong martial arts films. She’s American, but as a young woman she worked as a model in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, where she was discovered and trained by Jackie Chan. Some of her Hong Kong films were Benny Chan’s GEN-X COPS 2, Ching Siu Tung’s NAKED WEAPON and Daniel Lee’s Seagal-produced DRAGON SQUAD, before coming to Hollywood for cool supporting parts in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III and LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD. She’s been in a bunch of stuff since then, including the DIVERGENT series. A lesser known one I thought she was cool in was PRIEST. But I kinda thought she’d moved on from that, so as an action fan I was so thrilled when I first saw the trailer for THE PROTÉGÉ and realized she not only had a legit starring role action vehicle, but one that was made to be released in theaters! And it really happened! I saw it in one!

This was a few weeks ago, many of the reviews I saw were negative, and it’s probly pretty much gone already, but it’s on VOD now and on disc soon. So I want to put in a good word for it.

It’s directed by Martin Campbell (DEFENSELESS, THE MASK OF ZORRO, CASINO ROYALE) and written by Richard Wenk (VAMP, 16 BLOCKS, THE MECHANIC, THE EXPENDABLES 2, THE EQUALIZER, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK), so it makes sense that it’s sturdier-than-average for mainstream action. I thought Campbell gave a good international role to Q’s mentor Jackie Chan in THE FOREIGNER a couple years ago, but that was a co-lead at best, so there were stretches where I was mostly looking forward to him showing up again. This one, to its great credit, is all Maggie.

I swear in the movie she’s not a bobblehead, she has a normally proportioned head and body

She plays Anna, a (you guessed it) elite assassin raised by Moody (Samuel L. Jackson, THE RETURN OF SUPERFLY), a Vietnam vet and blues fan who found her as a child at the site of a massacre in Da Nang. Oh – not during the war. She was kidnapped and she killed the four dudes who did it. It was her massacre. So he taught her some more techniques.

We see Anna and Moody working as a team to take out a Romanian mob boss in spectacular fashion. They kidnap his son and she goes in to collect the money, but ends up taking none of it after getting what she really came for. Moody can’t understand why she’d do that, but neither of them are hard up for cash.

Then Anna finds Moody dead at home. He was semi-retired but tinkering with a case like a hobbyist, trying to find someone. And he leaves her a clue hovering outside the window on his toy drone. That’s what I need to express here is that the tone is serious but not joyless. Jackson is having fun acting-wise, his character is playing with toys, and Anna retains a dry wit in the face of varying levels of danger. It’s not some silly-ass xXx type business, but it doesn’t drown the fun in quasi-realism like some of these spy movies that care what respectable people think about them.

She digs into his investigation, other people end up dead, there are twists and turns, she’s captured and tortured (don’t worry, she can get out of this), and it’s all connected to some shady guy called Rembrandt (Michael Keaton, also in the less good AMERICAN ASSASSIN) who likes to quote poetry to show he’s not like the other guys. They have sort of an OUT OF SIGHT thing where they fight but are clearly intrigued with each other even before they go from wrestling in the living room to just going ahead and fucking to get it over with.

This is a world of people paid enormous amounts of money, and they all traffic in expensive items. Anna owns a rare book store in London, is an expert on first editions, and uses buying books as cover for her assassination-related-travel (or maybe uses missions as an excuse to buy books). She buys Moody an ultra-rare 1958 flying-V guitar and a B.B. King live record. The bad guys all have art hanging in their places; she uses one’s love of fancy cigars against him. But Anna and Moody both have a passion for the artistry of this stuff, while their opponents make wreckage of it. When Moody is attacked (at least in Anna’s imagination of it) a closeup emphasizes the damage done to the guitar as it’s knocked off a table. When she’s ambushed at the store, machine guns tear shelves of books to pieces, their chopped up pages pouring down on her like snowflakes. That Rembrandt can quote from one of the books and claims he never would’ve destroyed her store like that either sets him apart from the others or is his attempt to be set apart from the others.

I don’t really buy that Anna would be so immediately into this guy (Michael Keaton, yes – Rembrandt, not really) but having an actor as charismatic as Keaton in the role makes it much more interesting than the standard European or South American dreamboats they usually have in the “he’s evil but she fucks him” slot. Also, it’s cool to see Keaton (and his double Stiliyan Marvrov) get a pretty good fight scene.

(Fight choreographer: Georgi Manchev [HELLBOY, RAMBO: LAST BLOOD].)

Like Q herself, Anna seems to have been born to a Vietnamese woman and a white American soldier who met during the war. I like that her heritage is specified, because in American movies we rarely see Vietnamese or Vietnamese-American characters outside of a war context. She never wants to go back to Vietnam but is forced to. Meanwhile, old family friend Billy Boy (Robert T-1000 Patrick) seems to have never left there after the war, still roaming around with an American biker gang. It’s great to see her buddy up with him.

Much like the films of Keanu Reeves, Jason Statham or Wesley Snipes, Q’s very specific physicality is one of the main attractions – the way she’s clumsy and awkward getting pushed around at the beginning, before the reveal that it was a ploy so that she would be captured, so then she turns rigid, upright and precise; the way the skinniness of her frame plays into her cat-like movements and surgical strikes.

I mean, check out this still:

She comes in to talk to a dangerous guy, offers herself up for security check, and unless those guys are idiots they can tell just by the way she carries herself that she knows something they don’t about who’s gonna get fucked up real quick and how.

There’s a rappelling-on-a-firehose gag that’s great even though it’s kind of a less-than-one-upping of a scene in ATOMIC BLONDE. Behind-the-scenes materials confirm that Q did the stunt herself. When she scurries between floors and drops through the ceiling onto somebody I wondered if Campbell actually watched her movie NAKED WEAPON, where something kinda similar happens.

Of course this is Martin Campbell, not Ching Siu-Tung, so it’s not nearly as crazy of a movie as that, but it’s got a little more spice than many Hollywood films. I definitely appreciate that every single time someone gets shot they fly through the air and slam against a wall. That’s what I want to see. And there are some good gimmicks about fancy pants ways she sneaks weapons into secure locations. I agree with the movie’s weighting of coolness over plausibility.

The other thing is her attitude – the absolute blankness of her face as she flees from an assassination, unimpressed by the dangers she faces; the smart-ass banter she has with both her mentor and her antagonist. I just love this type of performance – the cool, cold warrior exterior that occasionally slips so you can see the interior. She’s so good at it.

I am thankful for this Maggie Q movie. I hope we get more Maggie Q movies. And when the fuck are they gonna bring her character back in a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE? What’s the deal with that?

P.S. MAJOR SPOILER FOR LAST ACT: When Moody suddenly turns out to have faked his death (that Samuel L. sure likes to die in the beginning and not have to be in the middle part and then show up alive again at the end!) I’m totally down for it but I kinda lost the plot a little… it’s like, “Oh good, you’re still alive, now you can help me in my mission to avenge your death.” They still go blow the guy up! I know it was explained what the guy was up to, but I didn’t follow all that. Not that it mattered much.

You know what’s great is when Anna, Moody and Billy Boy are sitting at the table making a plan, and they make a cool team even before it occurs to you that they’re cast members of DIE HARDS 2, 3 and 4. The only existing DIE HARD sequels. I love it!

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 23rd, 2021 at 1:05 pm and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

12 Responses to “The Protege”

  1. I really enjoyed this one – the action, the vibe of the fancy-pants lifestyle, the chemistry between Q and Keaton, her dry delivery of the humor – all good. But after watching this, BLACK WIDOW, and the Neflix original, KATE, I’d like to call a moratorium on bad-ass women assassin type characters being taken as children and trained/mind fucked into being a bad-ass assassin type. Let them just be people who have a set of skills for a reason they chose themselves (usually it’s military training) and decided to use it as they wanted. Let them have agency, for christ sakes. The movie doesn’t have to be about them finally coming into their own agency and choosing to change. They can choose to change, if that’s how you want to go, for other reasons.

  2. I definitely agree, but don’t you think this one played it a little different? It didn’t really treat it like a very negative thing that she grew up to be a killer. She seemed to see Moody as a lovable father figure who had rescued her from a bad situation.

  3. Yes, I do think there was a difference there, which I appreciated. Also with the fact that she was technically a killer before they ever met, which it seemed like they were kind of trying to say that she was forged into this killing machine by the fire of her kidnapping and seeing her family murdered, which bonded them and he helped guide her on the path she would’ve gone down anyway. It was just that I saw all three of these movies really close together.

  4. Maggie, I’m with you in that we need to retire this trope of (especially) female assassins whose skills were forged in the fire of trauma, abuse and neglect. If you can find it, I’d advise you to check out Jolt, one of the quartet of female bad-ass movies we’ve been inundated with these last couple of months. Be warned, apart from a compulsively watchable Kate Beckinsale, it’s easily the weakest of the 4. But it does do one refreshing thing in not providing a backstory for the Protagonist’s Major Quirk: She has SERIOUS Anger Management issues. A She-Hulk who can cause serious damage when she loses it and needs to be zapped with high-voltage electricity to control her rage. She does visit a psychiatrist (an always watchable Stanley Tucci) but there’s thankfully no lame-ass backstory about how her anger was triggered by seeing Daddy repeatedly Slap Mommy around or some shit like that. She’s just an Angry Person, and fuck you if you piss her off. She just is.

  5. Re The Protege, for me it’s a lesser Martin Campbell. Not Bad Campbell like GREEN LANTERN, but also not top notch Campbell like THE MASK OF ZORRO/CASINO ROYALE. It’s even a slight notch below THE FOREIGNER Campbell. I’d say it’s on par with VERTICAL LIMIT Campbell where you go “Ok, that was not bad, but couldn’t it have been a little better?”

    My key gripes include a weak villain and action that I can merely describe as “competent”. Guess I’ve been spoilt with way too many elaborately staged 87Eleven beat downs to derive much excitement from the set pieces here that’s notable for some valiant stunt doubling for an aging and clearly not in tip-top shape Keaton.

    And I love the guy, but seriously…Sam Jackson again?????? I predict a day production comes to a standstill because the Older Black Mentor Father/Figure role cannot be cast because Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne AND Sam Jackson aren’t available. Why not Wesley Snipes who’s aged nicely into roles like this and a super-assassin trained by Blade himself is an endlessly fascinating “what-if” for me.

    But the most pleasant surprise was Keaton being given such a meaty role, guy’s practically a co-lead! And there’s something charmingly retro about his flirtation with Maggie Q, which recalls that between her NIKITA stint on TV, LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD and now this, Q continues to be an Exotic Asian Fetishization for White Dudes.

  6. Kaykay – Didn’t Jolt also feature (spoiler) Susan Sarandon implying Kate Beckinsale was some kind of military supersoldier whatever? There definitely seems to be some sort of “meant from birth to be the perfect assassin” backstory there, they’re just putting it off until the sequel they hope to get.

    As for this one, I’ll echo everyone else’s enjoyment. Keaton is miscast, but still KEATON, so it’s cool (although him being the same age as Maggie’s adopted father is something you’d think they’d acknowledge). I thought the ending was a bit weak. I guess the implication was that Keaton would be honorbound to avenge his boss, even though the guy is dead and not paying him anymore? And even though he seems like exactly the type of guy who would let bygones be bygones and walk away? I don’t know, didn’t get what they were going for, aside from him being the most visible bad guy, so he has to end up getting killed by the hero. Even though there’s no reason for them to be trying to kill each other? I guess they were just *that* pissed off about the minor wounds they received?

  7. Kaplan:


    I think they were saying, or more specifically, she believed, that Keaton would have to come after her to salvage his reputation. Like, no one wants the security service that loses their client and never gets the person that killed their client. I think it’s still a pretty big black mark just having the client get killed. If I’m looking to hire someone, I don’t care if they’re going to avenge my death. I want them to prevent if from happening, thank you very much.

    Even so, I think it was vague enough of an ending that it’s possible she didn’t kill him. I’m saying that she didn’t in my head, any way.

  8. Ugh – I just typed this out and it’s being held because I screwed up my name. So, you can just delete it, Vern, if you can. Or it will be on here twice, because I’m too impatient to wait. Or maybe this one will get held up, too. It’s a crazy world.



    I think they were saying, or more specifically, she believed, that Keaton would have to come after her to salvage his reputation. Like, no one wants the security service that loses their client and never gets the person that killed their client. I think it’s still a pretty big black mark just having the client get killed. If I’m looking to hire someone, I don’t care if they’re going to avenge my death. I want them to prevent it from happening, thank you very much.

    Even so, I think it was vague enough of an ending that it’s possible she didn’t kill him. I’m saying that she didn’t in my head, any way.

  9. SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER. I just read that they tested an alternate ending where it cuts to black as the door opens, before you see that it’s her. That must’ve been frustrating!

  10. I read that, too, just after I saw the movie. My friend who I saw it with said she would’ve been FURIOUS if that had been the ending. I’m definitely glad they changed it.

  11. I like a solid genre piece like this elevated by clear action scenes and amazing chemistry between the leads. Seriously, they should’ve spent more time on Keaton/Q together than the Moody plot.

    It’s a little better than Kate which was also perfectly fine. Perhaps we are entering a new golden age where action movies are ok with being action movies and don’t feel they have to apologize for them to make them highbrow.

  12. Keaton was meant to be playing, like, 15 years younger than his age or something, right? I don’t see any other way to make sense of it. Plausibility aside, though, he was great. It’s nice to see an action movie with an OUT OF SIGHT romance; we haven’t had one of those in a while.

    I’ll concur with everyone else in ranking these THE PROTÉGÉ > KATE > JOLT. (Haven’t seen BLACK WIDOW or GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE. What else has been out there recently? SENTINEL? I liked that one.) Anyone notice that Ori Pfeffer plays the villain’s chief of security in both THE PROTÉGÉ and JOLT? Interesting casting, since to look at him you’d think he’s more the high-school-chemistry-teacher type.

    Oh, Vern, thanks for fixing my italics back in the ZOLA thread.

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