For the second time in as many months Samuel L. Jackson plays a hitman whose family values are as strong, if not stronger, than his instinct to kill. In “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” he found his logical, not biological family. In “The Protégé,” now in theatres, he’s a mentor and father figure to a killer played by Maggie Q.
Q is Anna, one of the world’s most highly trained assassins. She was brought into the life of international intrigue by Moody (Jackson), a blues-guitar playing contract killer. “I’m the big bad wolf who comes to get you,” he says, “when someone on earth decides your time is up.” He rescued her in Vietnam in 1991 after her parents were killed by communist soldiers. “He didn’t save my life,” she says, “he gave me a life.”
When Moody is brutally murdered, Anna loses the one person in her life she can trust. Vowing revenge, she uses her special set of skills to find out who blew away her mentor and father figure. “I’m going to find out who killed my friend,” she says, “and I’m going to end their life and the lives of anyone who stands in my way.”
One of those people standing in her way is Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), a rival assassin who works for some very bad but well-connected people. As the plot thickens, so does the connection between Anna and Rembrandt as her investigation leads her back to where her story began, Vietnam.
“The Protégé” is a glossy revenge flick that covers well-travelled ground. There are exotic locations, elaborate action sequences, complicated alliances and a dark backstory. Richard Wenk’s screenplay hits on a greatest hits of international assassin tropes and director Martin Campbell, best known for directing the 007 comeback film “Casino Royale,” knows how to take advantage of those story elements.
So why does “The Protégé” feel like less than the sum of those parts? Perhaps it’s because the characters don’t elevate the material.
Q is a credible action star, ably handling the kinetic stunts. Jackson brings his brand of effortless cool and Keaton is quirky and mysterious and somewhat cavalier about his chosen profession. “I could put two in the back of your head,” he says after making love to Anna, “and then go make a sandwich.”
Each brings something to the movie, and while Q and Jackson have an easy way about their relationship, the chemistry between Keaton and Q feels forced. An attempt at a fight scene that leads to the bedroom, set to “That Loving Feeling” by Isaac Hayes, falls flat despite the talent on screen.
“The Protégé” aspires to be something bigger than it is. The morality of the business of killing is discussed, generational trauma is hinted at and there is a complicated (and not terribly interesting) conspiracy at play but the movie is at its best when it puts aside its notions of gravitas and concentrates on the primal aspect of the story, Anna’s quest for revenge.