The trailer for “The Protégé” tells us this empty-calorie action thriller is from the studio that gave us the “John Wick” movies and the director of “Casino Royale” so that’s a pretty good start — but despite the power trio of Maggie Q, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton and some striking visuals and a few nifty fight scenes, this is the kind of movie that fills us with viewer déjà vu.
We’ve seen it all before, often done with more style, a better brand of dark humor and smarter plots.
“The Protégé” kicks off with a prologue set in Vietnam, where Samuel L. Jackson’s professional assassin, one Moody Dutton (now there’s a name for a hitman, he’s Moody!) arrives upon a crime scene in which a number of henchmen have been gunned down. Turns out this is the handiwork of a little girl named Anna (Eva Nguyen Thorsen), who had managed to grab a gun and mow down these human trafficking dirtbags. Impressed by little Anna’s guile and resourcefulness, Moody takes Anna with him and crosses the border — well, he guns down a bunch of guards standing in their way — and I guess he spends the next couple of decades raising Anna and teaching her in the ways of the assassin, because when we flash forward many years later, Anna (now played by Maggie Q) has literally become Moody’s partner in crime. Not only is Anna stylish and gorgeous, wearing fabulous outfits while on the job, she has equal or even superior skills to Moody’s when it comes to shooting, stabbing, kicking, punching, blowing things up and just general wet work.
The makeshift family that slays together, stays together.
Judging by the enormous mansion where Moody lives, business has been quite steady through the years. On Moody’s 70th birthday, Anna gifts him with a rare guitar once owned by blues great Albert King, and things take a contemplative turn when Moody shows Anna his Wall of Victims, and says even though they all had it coming, their souls are waiting to greet him on the other side or some such thing. Way to ruin the celebration vibe, Moody.
Even though Moody is a top-tier hitman with dozens of kills and surely any number of enemies who’d like to see him dead, he doesn’t seem to have much of a security system, and he’s gunned down in his own home by a gang of killers. (You can practically see the wire yanking the stuntman through the air when Moody gets hit with a blast and flies into his own bathtub.) Meanwhile, Anna narrowly escapes a hit at the rare bookstore she owns as a front, but man those rare books really take a pummeling, far past the point of being “Gently Used.”
Now it’s revenge time, baby! Anna’s search for the man behind the men who killed Moody and tried to have her killed takes her back to Vietnam for the first time since she was a child. Anna connects with Robert Patrick’s Billy Boy, a motorcycle gang leader and an old friend of Moody’s, and that Billy Boy is quite helpful. Meanwhile, Anna gets tangled up in a bizarre relationship of sorts with Michael Keaton’s Rembrandt (the character names in this movie!), who’s some kind of criminal fixer and is quite urbane and sophisticated and would love to explore a romance with Anna but also might have to kill her. This leads to the inevitable scene where Maggie Q and Keaton (and their stunt doubles) engage in a violent and sexually provocative hand-to-hand duel, with Keaton’s Rembrandt finally proclaiming she’s either got to kill him or blank him, if you get my drift.
Seems like only yesterday, but it was a full two months ago, that Samuel L. Jackson was first seen in “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard,” playing another assassin. Jackson is always great fun to watch, but the two characters are practically interchangeable. Maggie Q and Michael Keaton are terrific together, even when the plot requires them to engage in some eye-rolling behavior. “The Protégé” isn’t trying to be anything more than slick, escapist action fare, but when you have the star power of the lead trio, a terrific supporting cast and what appears to be a sizable enough budget, it’s not too much to ask for a little something in the way of a cohesive script. Instead, we get two variations on the same twist, and an ending that’s both murky and irritating. Maggie Q and company deserve better.