Is there any cinematic trope that has been beaten down as badly over the last few decades as the hitman? When "Pulp Fiction" arrived in 1994, it certainly wasn't a new idea to depict someone who was paid to kill others — but now it's a quarter century later, and in just the last few weeks we've seen "Vanquish," "Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard," "Black Widow," "The Tomorrow War," "The Ice Road," and others, all depicting at least one character trained to kill everyone in the room, then walk out in slo-mo looking cool after doing it. If the world were filled with anywhere near this many highly trained assassins, there'd be no one left to kill.
But just when you're ready to throw your hands up and declare the whole concept picked clean, a film comes along like "The Protégé." Make no mistake, the title is generic, terrible, and sounds like some straight-to-VOD thing starring Bruce Willis. But that title is also the only notable mistake this clever little film makes, and the result is a must-see movie that is a terrific showcase for the talents of Maggie Q.
The film begins in Da Nang, Vietnam in 1991. There we meet Anna, a little girl with a very big gun hiding in a closet. She is "rescued" by Moody (Samuel L. Jackson), an able assassin with a soft spot for the child who is the only one left standing in a room filled with dead men. Naturally, he takes her under his wing and back to America.
Director Martin Campbell (doing his best work since "Casino Royale" put him in the upper echelon of blockbuster filmmakers, only to have "Green Lantern" knock him back down) wisely keeps returning to that Da Nang sequence, doling out small breadcrumbs about the relationship between Moody and Anna — who we're introduced to soon enough as a butt-kicking adult in the form of Maggie Q.
A few early scenes of happiness and familial friendship come crashing down after Moody starts asking questions people don't want to answer about dead people who might not really be dead. This leads to Anna's worst nightmare realized — a brutal hit has taken out her mentor, and whoever did it is now coming after her.
But just because Anna is in mourning, that doesn't mean she isn't composed enough to cut down each and every person she must to climb a criminal ladder that might offer her vengeance. This is where the film gets really fun, and to give away any of the well-conceived twists and turns would be as cruel as the many villains met and mowed down along the way.
One of these baddies happens to be Michael Keaton's Rembrandt — an ascot-wearing, Poe-quoting, Anna-admiring baddie who may or may not be on the verge of giving into his kinder instincts. From the jump, he flirts with Anna via well-written, playful dialogue that longs for a way they can get together — even if every beat of the story tells us only one can live. The duo also have multiple scenes of hand-to-hand combat that unfold like Astaire and Rogers dance numbers, the two perfectly complementing — and nearly killing — each other.
On the verge of celebrating his 70th birthday in real life, is Keaton too old for the role? Yes, and he also seems too old to be convincingly pulling off the martial arts moves — but he does both, all with that glorious twinkle in his eyes we've treasured for decades. Maggie Q, who is about 30 years younger, is a flawless partner in both the fight scenes and the ones where they spar with dialogue. Together, the two make a terrific pair, and they pull off the difficult task of making you wish these two ruthless killers would somehow end up together.
Of course, Samuel L. Jackson is also north of 70, but at least in the movie he admits that. Thanks to movie magic, both of these beloved characters actors still feel like credible threats — although Keaton's stunt double simply moves different than the actor, so scenes where he suddenly goes from a casual, charismatic swagger to a full-speed, jumping-through-windows quasi-parkour not only break the illusion but can feel like the kind of sped-up film trickery once used in "Three Stooges" shorts.
For most of its runtime, "The Protégé" feels like the best film Luc Besson never got around to making. For a while, there was no one better at telling adrenaline-packed tales about trained killers ("Leon: The Professional") and no-nonsense women outkilling the ruthless men that would do them harm ("Lucy" and "Nikita," which spawned a 2010-2013 TV series starring Maggie Q in the title role), but he has increasingly become more of a producer and writer (the "Taken" and "Transporter" films). Here, Campbell takes the baton while continuously surprising the audience with his leading lady's prowess.
Time and again, we see Anna overmatched, in rooms filled with men twice her size. But like Jean Reno in "The Professional," she's a master with weapons, and seems to have an endless array of creative ways in which to deploy them. The film keeps things moving fast — characters like Rembrandt, Moody, and Anna are constructed as smart people who need to stay a few steps ahead of everyone else to stay alive, so the benefit to the viewer is that we never get ahead of what we're seeing onscreen, a fatal mistake made by so many films.
Never is this more apparent than in a climactic action scene that doesn't have a single punch thrown. Rembrandt asks Anna to dinner, and the two meet up in a fancy restaurant, both dressed to the nines. In no time, the two are pointing guns at each other under the table. The dialogue in the scene, written by "The Equalizer" movies (and the upcoming "Kraven the Hunter") scripter Richard Wenk, crackles with crude, infectious precision.
Between the dialogue, the action, and that central cat-and-mouse game between Maggie Q and Michael Keaton, the film is well worth your time. The three leads are all clearly having a lot of fun, and their characters are given plenty of time to breathe and develop between knife fights. It all wraps up in a solid showdown, punctuated by a terrific final shot.
So do yourself a favor and get past the generic moniker. "The Protégé" is the best trained killer film to come along in sometime, and Maggie Q is an absolute force of nature who gives heart, body, and soul to her performance.