Divergent and Nikita star Maggie Q deserves a starring role, but The Protégé doesn’t deserve Maggie Q. A by-the-numbers lady-assassin action flick in the mold of Anna, Atomic Blonde, and Ava, The Protégé only feels daring in its willingness to break the alliterative titular pattern of this particular subgenre. Otherwise, it’s all standard-issue post-John Wick stuff: Gorgeous female killer is betrayed, devotes herself to vengeance, and is responsible for a spree of violence in international locales. “Murder me, Maggie Q” would be an appropriate response to The Protégé, but giving into the thirst means eye-rolling through a fair amount of silliness.
The Protégé is a movie about a woman made by men — often the case for this subgenre, as with the recent Gunpowder Milkshake. Director Martin Campbell and writer Richard Wenk craft their titular character with the usual unsurprisingly bland blend of gender stereotypes. Anna Dutton (Maggie Q) is a badass who can identify guns by the sound their bullets make entering the chamber, but she also wears Manolo Blahniks and designer clothes. She bakes apple pies from scratch in her multi-thousand-dollar La Cornue oven, and can also power through numerous waterboarding sessions without losing her cool. It’s only because of her impenetrable self-assuredness that the character holds together at all, and only because of her commitment as a martial artist and stuntwoman that the action scenes have any verve or thrill. None of the men around her (and it is, of course, only men around her) can really keep up.
The Protégé begins in Vietnam in 1991, when assassin Moody Dutton (Samuel L. Jackson), in nods to Léon: The Professional and Kill Bill: Volume 1, takes Anna under his wing. At the time, she’s a young girl (Eva Nguyen Thorsen) with a gun in her hand and an array of rebels’ bodies scattered around her. Thirty years later, that girl has grown up to be Anna, Moody’s close friend and partner in the gun-for-hire business. They live poshly in London with palatial residences and top-tier cars, they do jobs all over Europe, and they’re each other’s only real family.
But soon after Moody turns 70, three events change Anna’s life. First, he asks her to find out what happened to a 9-year-old boy named Lucas Hayes, who Moody was responsible for protecting in Vietnam when he was there in the 1990s, but who disappeared after his father Edward, a noted war criminal, was killed by a car bomb. Second, Anna meets a mysterious man named Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), who flirts with her by quoting Edgar Allan Poe and calling her “interesting.” (It’s as meaningless a compliment as “fine.”) And third, Anna realizes Moody’s questions about Lucas will lead her back to Vietnam, so she decides to finally return to her birth country to find answers about the case, and herself.
Aside from the “female assassin goes home to become whole” trope, which is so familiar that Black Widow extended it into an entire film, The Protégé gets twisted into a pretzel made up of varying agendas, hidden identities, and shared histories. All of this is wrapped around Anna, which means that Maggie Q shares most of her scenes with male actors decades older than her: Jackson, playing her father figure; Keaton, playing her love interest; and Robert Patrick, playing a motorcycle-riding ally named Billy Boy.
Each of those actors brings in their own individual late-career freewheeling energy: Jackson is in the same mode he’s been in through both Hitman’s Bodyguard movies, while Keaton is basically reprising Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming. Although the familiarity of these performances makes for undemanding watching, it also imbues Anna’s pairings with a certain repetitive sameness. She isn’t treated as a wunderkind or trainee so much as she’s treated like everyone’s daughter, and that dynamic lends a particular ickiness when the film thrusts her and Keaton against each other, bodies grinding in something we are meant to assume is sex. (While Campbell and Wenk are totally comfortable showing exploded and decapitated heads, or the blood splatter from murdered children, they’re strangely cagey about showing Maggie Q and Keaton kissing.)
And although Maggie Q holds her own against these bombastic personalities by underplaying her line deliveries and relying on slightly bemused sarcasm, The Protégé often feels stuck in one gear. The film only comes alive during its action scenes, which benefit from her grace and power. In one sequence, she flips open a cellphone with a knife hidden inside, stabs a man in the neck, and then kicks out at other attackers in opposing directions. In another, she loops a dagger in a wild arc, scutters up a vent system, tiptoes along a narrow pipe as bullets whiz all around her, then launches herself off a balcony, using a fire hose to rappel down several stories.
This is a film where Maggie Q balances her way out of a noose. She fires through a refrigerator door and drenches her assailant with milk and bits of food; she flips and kicks and shoots. But all of that happens in the same movie that asks her to keep a straight face while saying, “You point a gun at my pussy, and then you ask me to bed? I like your style.” Some of The Protégé’s missteps can be tolerated because the film gives Maggie Q a lead role with some teeth, but that line asks too much. The Protégé can’t just let Anna kick ass: It has to tack on a try-hard romantic subplot whose primary function seems to be insisting that Anna is a wild sexual being. Is that relevant to the story at hand? Not really. It’s a shame Maggie Q was so busy carrying The Protégé on her back that she couldn’t make time to kick the film’s embarrassing script into shape, too.
The Protégé opens in theaters on August 20.