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- The Protégé
- Directed by Martin Campbell
- Written by Richard Wenk
- Starring Maggie Q, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson
- Classification 14A; 109 minutes
- Opens Aug. 20 in select Canadian theatres
Here we have Mr. Cat and Ms. Mouse – or is that Mr. Mouse and Ms. Cat? In the slick shoot-’em-up thriller The Protégé, the young(ish) and beautiful action-pic star Maggie Q and the much older veteran actor Michael Keaton play high-stakes adversaries and witty, telegenic flirters who engage in sexual tension and globetrotting contract killing. She’s an assassin posing as a rare-book seller; he’s a crime-world fixer guy presenting as a suave ladies’ man. Who’s catching who here?
They meet in her London book shop, where he drops in purportedly to find a gift for his boss’s wife. She recommends an outrageously rare book of poems. He finds her “interesting,” and gets a commitment from her that she’ll call him within 27 minutes.
Their banter is so impossibly witty and insufferably that I want to stab myself in the temple – stilettos are everywhere in this film, but I can’t find mine.
The Protégé is directed by New Zealand filmmaker Martin Campbell, whose credits include the James Bond films GoldenEye and Casino Royale, and the two Zorro films starring Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The Protégé fits his cinematic profile: sexy stone-cold killers and dashing vigilantes dispensing justice flamboyantly.
The Bond canon and The Protégé – and let’s throw in the John Wick films too – are of the blood-and-bullets genre of escapism that willfully evade logic and star fetching actors and actresses as unkillable killers. Henchmen are terrible at henching. The police are never around to get in the way of the savagery. Best to just suspend disbelief.
The Protégé stars the aforementioned Maggie Q as Anna Dutton, an assassin of mixed-race ethnicity who experienced severe trauma as a child in Vietnam. She was rescued and adopted by an operative, Moody Dutton, who acts a lot like any number of Samuel L. Jackson characters we’ve come to know and love over the years. It’s probably just as well that Jackson was available to take on the role.
Moody takes the child under his mustache (you really have to see this bushy, fake thing for yourself) and mentors her as an assassin. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and Moody is clean-shaven and the adult Anna is in Romania to do some dirty work. Nothing good ever happens in Romania, at least onscreen – the country needs a Hollywood-based PR firm badly.
What follows is a plot full of implausible surprises, with a nice flow of violent action and snappy dialogue. Occasionally the proceedings are interrupted with pretentious utterings that would have Confucius choking on his fortune cookies. When Moody suggests a mission that might take them back to Vietnam, his mentee says she’ll never go back. “Our past is never where we left it,” is Moody’s profound rejoinder.
She goes back. In Saigon, a motorcycle gang of non-Asians is led by Billy Boy (played by Robert Patrick, of Terminator 2: Judgment Day fame). Just what a bunch of marauding motorcyclists are doing over there is never made clear by the scriptwriter – for one thing, they’re too young to be Vietnam War veterans.
And Keaton, who plays the sophisticated, cool-headed and enigmatic Rembrandt, is much too old to be Anna’s bone-crunching foil and possible lover. Still, with flattering lighting and makeup, Keaton pulls off the role with aplomb. It’s hard to tell if Anna and Rembrandt are trying to kill each other, or if their mano-a-womano combat is just elaborate foreplay.
The Protégé, then, keeps us guessing – right up until the final scene. As for who’s the cat and who’s the mouse, that’s easy: Filmmaker Campbell is the former and we’re the latter. The Protégé plays with its viewers – if one is up for the game, there are worse ways to spend 109 minutes.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)
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