“Understated” is unquestionably the wrong word to use when describing Martin Campbell’s latest film, “The Protégé.” No, this is a movie with blood and violence and foul language. It is not understated. And yet, the most interesting thing about the whole affair is its general tendency to hold back. Excluding a few scenes (mostly towards the end), “The Protégé” is very happy to not connect the dots, to just let things play out and hope the audience will keep up. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t; but this quality makes the film, at the very least, intriguing.
Maggie Q stars here as Anna, the protégé in question. From a young age, Anna has been raised by Moody (Samuel L. Jackson), a surrogate father who found her hiding in a cabinet (or maybe a wardrobe?) in Vietnam with more than one dead soldier in the immediate vicinity. Decades after this first meeting, we learn that Anna and Moody take contracts to kill people. Sure, these are bad people that the two are killing (so that we can like them better), but they assassinate folks nonetheless. The past, as it does, comes back to bite them, and Anna is soon back in Vietnam trying to hunt down a shadowy, villainous, figure. To do what needs to be done, she has to get through Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), who is working for this man behind the curtain.
Rembrandt and Anna find themselves in a will they-won’t they sort of a thing, with the question(s) not just being if they’ll consummate the relationship but also if they’ll kill each other (either before or after). Excluding the bits where the movie bows to the pressure and gets too talkie, this is the weakest aspect of “The Protégé.” Keaton is enjoyable as Rembrandt and Maggie Q remains a great action star, but there is little believability in any sort of relationship between the two. One might take the position that for her it’s something approaching an Elektra complex, utilizing Rembrandt as a stand-in for Moody, but it doesn’t feel that way. Instead, the impression it gives off (whether true or not) is that Keaton was hired for the role and the relationship was allowed to remain in the script despite the age difference. The repartee between the two still largely works, but the romantic aspects do not due to Keaton’s being more than a quarter century older.
Jackson is less good here than his two co-stars, not quite mounting the same sort of charismatic offering he usually provides. He is tasked with playing one character at two different moments in time and surely a lot has happened to him in the interim, but the single individual feels quite different depending on when we see him. This seems, in part, symptomatic of some of the film’s uneasy tonal shifts (which we’ll get to later).
“The Protégé” leans heavily on character instead of spectacle, and the sort of quizzical nature of the plot works well along these lines. The script from Richard Wenk, as the second paragraph of this review indicates, does offer up a story, but it doesn’t spend a lot of time elucidating it. That is, the whole movie seems to move forward based upon getting Anna from one place to the next so that she can interact with various people (for instance, Robert Patrick appears in the film, though one is never quite sure why his character needs to be present and actually contemplates whether he would be if Patrick hadn’t taken the role). Sometimes these interactions turn violent and sometimes they do not, but the audience is really just present to see what Anna is going to do or say next.
Well, until we aren’t. The attempt to connect the dots at the end of the proceedings works against that which has come before. Audiences are (or ought to be) smart enough to piece enough of the story together that the film’s conclusion feels unneeded.
Overall, the movie is a little wild and a lot silly. It is also dark and, as noted, bloody. There are moments when it is unclear whether “The Protégé” wants to be rather sinister or whether it’s shooting for something slightly funnier or whether it would prefer to operate on a more straight action vibe. Combined with the often illusory nature of plot specifics, the movie makes one feel rather off-balanced – what are we watching exactly; how are we to understand the whos and whys are wherefores of it all.
When things do turn to action, Campbell still proves to be a great director. With perhaps one exception, the fights and bloodshed and torture feel quite down to Earth. Sometimes the realistic nature is meant to shock and/or sadden and upset, other times it is there to impress and/or maybe just look cool. This proves to both be a testament to how a good director can use their tools in order to elicit various emotions and contributes to the unbalanced tone.
There is, in the end, a lot within “The Protégé” to recommend it. There is, at the same time, a lot working against the movie as well. Things generally tilt more positive than negative overall, but perhaps not by much.
photo credit: Lionsgate