Through its complex plot and stunning martial arts sequences, “The Protégé” is full of twists and turns — literally and figuratively. Lionsgate’s newest action release delivers nearly two hours of entertaining and unpredictable drama and keeps its audience engaged despite weaknesses in the storyline slipping through the action scenes.
The movie, directed by Martin Campbell and coming up on a digital release following its premier August 20, features an assassin named Anna (Maggie Q). She works with her mentor and fellow killer, Moody (Samuel L. Jackson), to run a lucrative murder-for-hire enterprise targeting corrupt individuals. After discovering Moody has been murdered, Anna masquerades as a rare bookstore owner in order to carry out an epic revenge mission. On this journey, she unravels an unexpected scheme and is forced to reckon with her past.
Although Anna is a classic, cold-blooded assassin who unflinchingly murders anyone standing in her way, she is humanized through her close relationship with Moody, passion for literature and Robin Hood-esque commitment to only assassinate morally deficient individuals. Maggie Q’s portrayal shines — the actress puts emotion into the complex character’s personality throughout the film while simultaneously carrying out impressive stunts with her martial arts background.
Anna’s intriguing backstory is successfully woven into the film’s storyline. The historical significance of her upbringing in socially-unstable Vietnam brings the issue of colonialism into the moral undertones of the plot, given the French colonized Vietnam and the villains in the film are French. Campbell acknowledges the unbreakable connection between Anna’s past and present by featuring parallel imagery spanning various points in her life, including hits on her enemies, which directly mirror her own traumatic experiences.
Other notable scenes from Anna’s past, including a childhood memory in which Moody rescues her at a Vietnamese checkpoint, underscore her personal history while also emphasizing her emotional connection to Moody. These memories establish the basis for Anna’s unflinching dedication to avenging her mentor.
The film’s set design and special effects support, rather than distract, from its compelling storyline. Campbell projects hauntingly beautiful imagery in certain scenes, such as the fragmented, floating remains of novels during a shooting in Anna’s bookstore.
As with many other action movies, “The Protégé” relies on a few common tropes of the genre. Some of the cliches present in the film include the portrayal of stereotypical Eastern European mobsters in the film’s opening scenes, Anna’s visit to the hospital and the opulent lairs of the film’s criminals. Furthermore, the archetypal characterization of the story’s white male villains is lackluster, given the unique protagonists that are Anna and Moody. “The Protégé” is bogged down by these basic characteristics.
Fans of action films will not be disappointed by the combat scenes in “The Protégé,” which are well-directed and employ many clever escapes and maneuvers. Willing suspension of disbelief is required to appreciate some of the superhuman stunts performed by the main characters, however.
The intricate plot of “The Protégé” does ultimately fail to address a few lingering questions and inconsistencies. Given the great detail in which the film works to establish the closeness of the relationship between Anna and Moody, the film’s final twist and revelation that he has put her at risk in order to carry out an assasination is bizarre.
Another point where the film misses the mark is the relationship between Anna and her enemy spy Rembrandt (Michael Keaton). Rather than following a logical progression and forming a romantic, enemies-to-lovers affair between the two opposing assassins, their entanglements strangely oscillate between passionate feelings for each other and ambivalent focus on their respective careers, with no clear organization or arc for their relationship.
Ultimately, “The Protégé” leaves its audience to grapple with many questions, including Moody’s redemption and Anna’s culpability for her wrongdoings. After the film’s final twist is revealed, viewers are left wondering whether Anna and Moody’s criminal actions are justified by the fact that their outcomes support the common good.