Martin Campbell’s The Protégé is as formulaic as an action movie can get, with a plot that is hardly new. Formula can work though, if the formula is handled the right way. For a good chunk of The Protégé, it mostly does, formula and all, because it’s enjoyable enough. The whole movie is unfortunately undone though by its ending, which is maddeningly unsatisfying.
Here is a film that features strong talent, in B-level material. Yet that talent often elevates The Protégé past that level, and they make the movie enjoyable enough. Until that dastardly ending, which… I’ll get to that later. Here’s the thing, in my time as a reviewer and watcher, I have heard people say that a movie or TV show is completely destroyed by its ending. This is something I haven’t always seen to be true. The ending of Game of Thrones was disappointing, but the rest of it was so good that I was lenient. A movie’s ending doesn’t have to wrap everything with a bow, but it should leave us with something. All the ending of The Protégé left me with was frustration, and it left me pondering. It didn’t leave me pondering the ending itself, like a movie like Mulholland Dr., but it left me pondering just how much of a mess the movie was because of it. Which is a shame, because there are pleasures here.
One such pleasure is Maggie Q, a beautiful, badass force of nature who gets to headline The Protégé. What took them so long? Anyways, here she plays Anna, who is was found in Vietnam as a little girl by a hitman of the sorts named Moody (Samuel L. Jackson, always a treat). When Moody finds her, it’s essentially in the middle of a bloodbath, as we observe that she has murdered her captors. Cut to some 30 years later, and the two are literally partners in crime, performing hits as a duo to this day.
Anna runs a rare book store as a front, and Moody lives in a mansion, so it’s safe to say business is good. We know though, mostly from the trailers, that that is going to come to a halt though, with the arrival of Michael Keaton’s Rembrandt (these names, Lordy), who takes an immediate fascination with Anna. Well, soon Moody is killed, and Anna is forced to find who killed him. Rembrandt, of course, is involved, and is also a hired killer, and the two of them, while trying to kill each other, also have something of an attraction for one another.
The movie has style. It’s light, it’s breezy. It’s kind of funny (sometimes cartoonishly violent) and you’d be amazed with what Maggie Q can do with a knife. Campbell earns his R-rating from the get-go here, as we see Q click a knife from out of her iPhone, and jabs someone in the neck with it. She also stores one inside of a cigar. Call me childish, but I was amused.
I was amused by much of The Protégé. Not really the plot, per se (the details of the plot sort of evaporate from the mind as you watch it), but the actors at the center of it. The plot is essentially just a generic placeholder for the actors to let it rip. And it’s with Keaton that the film achieves some sort of liftoff. You gotta hand it to the guy: he’s on fire. In the last 10 years, he’s nabbed an Oscar nomination, starred in two Best Picture winners (Birdman and Spotlight), he’s a part of the MCEU, and he’s returning to the role of Batman next year. He’s still got it.
Speaking of fire, in a surprising turn, Keaton and Q are light up the screen together. I know there’s about a 30 year age difference, but Keaton, at 69, still has the charm, and Q, at 42, is a cool beauty, and the two work wonders together. Their chemistry is weirdly convincing, particularly in a dinner scene about halfway through. I won’t share what exactly occurs here, but it’s snappy and sexy, and the highlight of the film.
Moments like that are so enjoyable in The Protégé that, even with the cliches, it’s still enjoyable. It’s a shame though that, in the end, the movie doesn’t quite work. Because, again, that ending. The ending doesn’t work not just because it’s abrupt and unsatisfactory, but also because it doesn’t match the rest of the movie at all. Campbell had a clear formula picture on his hands, and he mostly had an enjoyable one. But the final scene doesn’t complete the formula by any means, as if the screenplay decided to be a different movie at the last second. I kid you not, when the credits started rolling, I sat through them, because I was unconvinced that the movie was over, but it unfortunately was. It’s as if they didn’t know how to end it, so they just gave up.
Campbell is a good filmmaker. He’s made good movies (The Mask of Zorro, Goldeneye), he’s made great movies (I don’t hesitate in saying that Casino Royale is the best James Bond movie, which is bold praise). He’s made not so great movies (Green Lantern, The Legend of Zorro). The Protégé works better than the not so great, but it, in the end, doesn’t fully work. But it’s still sort of worth seeing. Just leave before it ends, and you’ll have a decent time. Alas, I didn’t get the memo.