Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated R, 1 hour and 49 minutes
Directed by: Martin Campbell
Though pure-grade action films are in danger of becoming homogenized, there’s still a lot of wiggle room for filmmakers to innovate on the ever-popular traumatized assassin archetype. A recent resurgence of Western releases (films like JOHN WICK, ATOMIC BLONDE, GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE and the soon-to-be-released KATE) rest on the foundation built by badass Hong Kong films before them. Director Martin Campbell’s THE PROTEGE is no exception, but also excels beyond the expected. With a dynamic heroine who is allowed to demonstrate her own agency, the story spun is an exciting, scintillating thrill-ride.
Anna (Maggie Q) is one of the world’s best assassins. She’s always had this latent skill. When she was a child, soldier-of-fortune Moody (Samuel L. Jackson) found her orphaned in Vietnam – right after she killed a bunch of baddies. He adopted her, becoming her handler/ father-figure, training her in the cold art of contract killing. She gets just as much of a kick carrying out hits as she does selling a rare book to high-market clientele through her London-based business front. However, she’s about to face her biggest challenge yet.
Moody turns up dead around the same time as he enlists Anna’s help on a new case involving Lucas Hayes (Dimitar Nikolov), the mysterious, reclusive son of a slain billionaire businessman convicted of war crimes. Her investigation into Lucas’ hidden whereabouts brings her back to Vietnam – a place marked by deep-seated psychological trauma (that you can probably guess without the gratuitously expository flashback tacked onto the third act). As Moody’s old pal Billy Boy (Robert Patrick) exhausts his informational resources, Anna fends off the advances of Michael Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), a private spook hired by a slippery benefactor to put a stop to her investigation. The matter becomes more pressing with each new clue unearthed, as the higher-ups want her dead before she discovers their evil-doings.
Campbell and screenwriter Richard Wenk pull from well-known references within genre filmmaking, but express ingenuity in their homages. The narrative initially grounds Anna and Moody in a LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL-inspired relationship, but blossoms from that backstory. Anna’s jog set to a classic Nina Simone track (“Feeling Good”) recalls POINT OF NO RETURN and that protagonist’s fondness of the singer. Anna and Michael’s spirited, sexy repartee and banter capture the sexual tension and release of BODY HEAT. Q and Keaton’s unflinching, unwavering performances, combined with camera placement and snappy editing, heighten the mood. They have an undeniable heat and scorching chemistry. Their explosive hand-to-hand combat sequence – in which they trash a home and then have sex – is straight out of MR. & MRS. SMITH, yet feels refreshing as we root for these two characters to screw with each other, both literally and figuratively.
Though there are CG-blood squibs a’plenty, action sequences are capably constructed and choreographed. There’s no shaky cam and David Tattersall’s cinematography gives a glossy, polished sheen to the grizzled heroine and gritty underworld. Campbell, who seemingly sleepwalked through his direction of THE FOREIGNER, finds a renewed sense of vigor and vibrancy balancing the character-driven stunt-work. Even the more understated scenes, where Wenk’s dialogue is highlighted, brilliantly crackle and pop in his capable hands.
Yet it’s not exactly free of problems. The narrative relies too heavily on familiar internal stakes for its protagonist. While it’s great her agency is kept at the forefront and isn’t a pandering Strong Female Character type, she’s written as an unbeatable superhero from the jump and there’s little tension from the audience ever doubting her survival. Some of the picture’s buoyancy gets weighed down by unnecessary exposition. And the third act is a tad unwieldy, hobbling itself with a confounding narrative decision.
Still, the film’s unique, creative spins on the action genre – in which it’s increasingly difficult to be different – deliver an overall satisfying conclusion and impactful punch.
Grade: 3.5/ 5
THE PROTEGE opens in theaters on August 20.