Martin Campbell directed three of the best tentpole action pictures of the last 30 years — GoldenEye, Casino Royale, and The Mask of Zorro — as well as numerous more, so every new film from him should be celebrated. And The Protégé feels like a good fit for his talents: it’s a vengeance film with a lot of hand-to-hand action and gunplay, full of the type of stunt-driven, beautifully directed mayhem that has been his specialty for the most of his career.
So, why does the film so often fall flat? While the narrative is fundamental, it appears to have enough emotional punch to keep us engaged. Anna (Maggie Q) is an accomplished international tracker and assassin who collaborates with fellow assassin Moody Dutton (Samuel L. Jackson), the man who saved her from slaughter in Vietnam when she was a youngster in the early 1990s. They now operate their company from London, utilizing an old bookstore (one of Anna’s interests) as a front. One day, a gang of shooters killed Moody, who looks to be terminally ill with an unidentified movie disease that causes him to cough.
She was suspecting that the reason for the hit was Moody’s quest for the location of the kid of a man he killed many years ago. Anna returns to Vietnam to find the perpetrators, who may or may not be connected to an international arms dealer and power broker in Da Nang. She re-connects with some old pals who lead a biker gang and explores sites from her past. Among those she seeks is the quick-witted Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), her mystery quarry’s deadly main henchman, with whom she develops a reportedly quick-witted, cat-and-mouse rapport.
The storyline, written by Richard Wenk (The Equalizer 2, The Expendables 2, Jack Reacher 2), is essentially an action-movie mad lib, but Campbell manages to inject some mood into it. Anna has refused to return to Vietnam for years, and the gleaming, contemporary cityscape she has encountered appears to be a long cry from the Da Nang she once knew. And as she continues on her path of vengeance, we realize that she will finally confront her horrific past, which we see in short flashes. Campbell understands that we don’t go to such films to be moved; we go to see people break each other’s necks. When I interviewed him last year, he made it clear that the “emotional spine” of these stories, as well as the brightness of the characterizations, would set them apart. (He noted that The Mask of Zorro needed a massive rewriting merely to enhance character development and comedy.)
That is why The Protégé’s failings on those levels are so disheartening since, despite the film’s predictability, the blueprint is there for something emotionally compelling. Unfortunately, promising subplots go unexplored, and character notes float aimlessly in the air. As Anna tried to find the villain’s son, I had the impression that the film was attempting to draw a connection between the two of them. The little girl rescued from a heritage of violence, and the young boy who wasn’t. But it was so subtle that it was hardly discernible. Or maybe I simply made it up since the subplot would have seemed pointless otherwise.
It doesn’t help that Anna is portrayed throughout as a calm killing machine who never breaks a sweat, even at her most desperate moments, making it difficult to identify with her sadness and fury. Meanwhile, Keaton’s Rembrandt is completely one-note, keeping his slick, sarcastic, motormouth schtick no matter what, making him look like minor bad-guy cannon fodder elevated to the level of a significant role as if the production couldn’t afford the actor to add further aspects to the character.
The back-and-forth between Rembrandt and Anna — alternatively combative and friendly, with a healthy dosage of what is intended to be sexual tension — could have worked if the screenplay had been well written. Still, it seldom gets beyond the level of depressing clichés: “It appears that I am a day late.” “And a buck short.” “Did he sing like a bird?” “Oh, the things I’ve learned. I’m aware of who your employer is.” “He’s a huge one.” “It’s more fun if you hook ’em.” And so forth. This is not even an attempt.
The action scenes are usually well-executed and inventive. Maggie Q, a seasoned shooter, moves effortlessly in battles and chases. She’s fast and just smooth enough to communicate competence without devolving into intentional, dancerly phoniness; we buy every punch, kick, jump, tumble, head-shot, neck-snap, and strangling as if it’s occurring right now, not weeks before. That requires actual expertise, and it’s difficult not to feel that that’s where most of the filmmakers’ creative energy went, leaving little for all the other essential stuff.
Even yet, The Protégé has an effortless flow as long as no one is talking. Early on, during a few wordless scenes when Anna was trying to piece together what happened to Moody, I was struck by how easily Campbell delivered essential plot material without anybody opening their mouths. It implies that he is aware of the film’s – and his own – qualities. Unfortunately, for every moment in which The Protégé appears to know precisely what it is, there is one in which it seems to be much wiser than it is. Given the amount of talent involved, that has to be considered a failure.