All due respect to the great Martin Campbell — the now-77-year-old New Zealander whose fine-tuned approach to action filmmaking at the studio level has resulted in “The Mask of Zorro” and two different (yet equally operatic) James Bond reboots that each outclassed their respective sequels — but there’s no excuse why a movie in which Michael Keaton plays a winkingly merciless henchman named Rembrandt should be as bland as “The Protégé.” The same could also be said of a revenge thriller in which Jackie Chan is hellbent on killing Pierce Brosnan, or a massive Green Lantern adaptation in which Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively fall in love before our very eyes while saving the universe from a bulbous-headed Peter Sarsgaard.
Alas, none of Campbell’s previous misfires have promised more or delivered less than the newest film in the director’s career-extending Eastern Europe period, a late summer dud that stars Maggie Q as a sexy assassin, Samuel L. Jackson as her ailing mentor, and Romania as several different parts of Vietnam (a fully committed performance worthy of Daniel Day-Lewis, or at least Jared Leto). In other words, “The Protégé” is exactly the kind of junk that’s tempting to dismiss as a tax write-off — or at least it would be if not for the pedigree of the talent involved and the palpable effort that people on both sides of the camera so clearly put into their parts.
Campbell’s body of work may be scarred with self-inflicted wounds (e.g. “Edge of Darkness”), but even his bad movies belie the precision and integrity responsible for his good ones. While “The Protégé” might be destined to die a lonely death somewhere on the iTunes movie rental charts in the not too distant future, there isn’t a sequence in this film that fails to suggest why it might have been fun under different circumstances. Under these particular circumstances, the results only range from dull to deeply uncomfortable. Campbell is like a master chef trying to make a handful of random ingredients into a five-course feast because he knows this is one of the last meals he’ll ever be paid to cook, and all he has to show for his time in the kitchen is a mess of different flavors that don’t taste like much of anything when mixed together.
To say that “The Protégé” is tonally uneven would be an insult to most of the other movies this (or any other) critic has ever described as such. Here’s a film that starts like a steel-cold riff on Q’s “Nikita” series, pivots to a light two-hander about a beautiful killer and her sniper daddy, takes a quick detour into the way that white businessmen exploited post-war Vietnam, and then reveals that all of its mismatched parts were actually in service to a “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”-esque rom-com about the violent lust that erupts between a 42-year-old woman and a 69-year-old man who can’t decide if they want to kill each other, screw each other, or do both at the same time. For better or worse, the only sequence in which “The Protégé” seems to know exactly what kind of story it wants to tell is the one that starts with Q and Keaton sitting across a small table at a fancy Da Nang restaurant while pointing guns at each other’s genitals under the table. “You point a gun at my pussy and then ask me to bed?” she says. “I like your style.” After years of writing sexless action scripts for the likes of “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” and “The Equalizer 2,” Richard Wenk may have had some dialogue he needed to get out of his system.
It’s possible to believe that a rich and beautiful London bookseller like Anna might be attracted to an ascot-sporting older someone who looks like he used to be Bruce Wayne, but the script doesn’t make it so easy to suspend disbelief. Their meet-cute doesn’t feel like a meet-cute because we don’t know this is the kind of movie in which these two characters would ever conceivably have sex. It happens in the store that Anna runs as a front for her secret gig as a contract killer, a life that she’s led ever since a guy named Moody Dutton (Jackson) found her covered in blood inside the closet of her family’s Da Nang apartment when she was a little girl. Moody took her in and trained her to “find the people who can’t be found,” which sounds like a mission statement from a completely different movie; Moody and Anna never really seem to be looking for anyone, though they do happily kill any bad guys with outsized contracts on their head (including a Romanian mobster who lives in Nicolae Ceausescu’s old country home).
But neither cartoonish jets of computer-generated blood nor the breezy needle-drops that tend to follow (brace for big “LOL, we’re sociopathic” energy) are enough to shake the movie’s prevailing vibe of sobriety. “The Protégé” feels like a po-faced and brutally physical story about likeable assassins in peril, and when Anna finds Moody shot dead in his bathtub one night, it’s easy to envision the hardboiled revenge saga to come. Sure, things might get a bit kooky along the way — the first people Anna meets when she tracks a lead to Vietnam belong to an expat biker gang run by Robert Patrick — but we must have imagined the dementedly flirtatious vibe of the scene in which Rembrandt came into Anna’s shop and tried to buy a $250,000 first edition of Edgar Allen Poe-try. Maybe it was just a misplayed bit of menace.
Maybe not. Although the tone of Keaton’s character is hardly the most pressing concern in a movie that fails to sufficiently explain his basic function in it. Rembrandt appears to run security for a shady multi-millionaire based out of Vietnam, but he’s basically a middle-manager who clocks out of the story for long stretches at a time; Anna works for someone too (don’t expect the script to make good on its faint wisps of world-building), but she and her sex nemesis appear to be on different narrative levels. It’s only a little less jarring than it would be if Black Widow felt an irresistible pang of attraction toward one of the random henchmen who tortured her in the first act of an “Avengers” movie, and just had to see it through. Rembrandt does eventually assume a greater importance to the story, but only because the overarching plot is patchy enough to make room for him.
It doesn’t hurt that Keaton is still effortlessly charismatic even when he doesn’t have much of a character to play, or that Anna kills all of Rembrandt’s other co-workers. The fight scenes in “The Protégé” are infrequent and unspectacular, but there’s a bruising physicality to all of the film’s stunts — always refreshing in the age of CG action — and Maggie Q continues to prove that Hollywood messed up by not making her a superstar. She ekes real charm out of rank dialogue, underwrites even the shakiest beats with stoic heroism, and throws herself into every stunt with a fearless grace that never lets you forget whose protégé she really is (Q was mentored by Jackie Chan). “The Protégé” never even begins to cohere as a story about paying for old sins (the ending is a “huh” of the highest order), and its ostensible villain is almost a complete non-entity, but watching Q repel down the inside of a high-rise or seduce Keaton from behind the barrel of a gun makes it obvious that she knows more about selling action on screen than most Hollywood actors could ever hope to learn.
Lionsgate will release “The Protégé” in theaters on Friday, August 20.