Movieland is full of badass assassins (“badassassins” is easier but sounds wrong) who can enter rooms like wraiths, kill squads of soldiers with only a fountain pen and autocomplete “transfer payment to my offshore account” with three taps on a keyboard. So pity the poor filmmaker, especially in a post-Professional world, trying to distinguish his hero from every other: The quirks that once made these guns-for-hire memorable long ago became cliché. Or laughable, as is the case in Martin Campbell’s The Protégé, which — given a very watchable cast and competent fight scenes — would be just another piece of hitman hackwork, if not for a script (by Equalizer auteur Richard Wenk) that tries so hard to make you think it’s smart that its dumbness is impossible to forgive.
Maggie Q plays the titular protégé, Anna, who as a child in Vietnam was rescued by professional killer Moody (Samuel L. Jackson). Having already killed several men who attacked her parents, the girl was an even more natural underage sidekick than Natalie Portman’s precocious waif in The Professional. Thirty years later, Anna and Moody are partners in the death business, and business is very good.
Not nearly as smart as it wants you to think.
Anna has picked up some rarefied tastes along the way. She owns an antiquarian bookshop in London, bundles her perfectly tousled hair under a beret and dresses elegantly even in the kitchen. So she’s a sucker for a confident older customer (Michael Keaton’s Rembrandt) who just happens to be able to quote obscure Poe verses from a tome she plucks randomly from her shelves. Just who is this sexy grandpa?
Around the time of this visit, a personal favor for Moody goes south. He has asked Anna to track down a man for him, but as soon as she puts out inquiries, killers descend on London, attacking both her go-to hacker (in a gruesome scene with unfortunate racial overtones) and her mentor. Mourning Moody’s loss in her own steely way, she sets off to find the man and whoever’s trying to keep his location secret. Though she’s sworn never to return to Vietnam, that’s just where the mystery will take her.
As the story sends Anna into a world of billionaire war criminals, it also forces her to make some very dumb choices in order to keep things rolling. Two or three times, she finds herself with the upper hand in a life-or-death situation, then casually throws away her advantage in favor of whatever run-and-gun sequence Campbell and Wenk have in mind. (Leaping down a stairwell on the end of a fire hose? Never seen that one before!)
But all of the above is merely the kind of boilerplate we expect, given the film’s pedigree. (Only the presence of Keaton, who generally has better things to do than make B movies, causes one to hope for more.) What makes Protégé groan-worthy is its attempt to craft a bantery adversarial romance between Anna and Rembrandt, who turns out to be the MVP of the bad guy’s problem-solving team. Setting aside the three-decade age difference, the problem with this courtship is that it’s written by someone who thinks randomly throwing cultural trivia into his screenplay makes it beguilingly sophisticated, and who doesn’t realize that superhuman expertise is much easier for viewers to accept in the world of violence than in the realm of things we might know about.
Thus we wince when Rembrandt casually identifies shoes he hasn’t looked at as “Manolos — classic four-inch pumps,” or when Anna, badly beaten and being nursed back to health, takes a few sips of bone broth and can taste that the bones weren’t blanched first. Never mind the flirty restaurant scene where the two pull pistols on each other under the table, each lovingly identifying the other’s unseen weapon just by the sound of its click into readiness. By the time someone blurts out “Make up your mind: kill me or fuck me,” viewers may have their own get-this-over-with ultimatum in mind.
Sans a compelling marriage of danger and eroticism, much of the third-act suspense fails to captivate. It’s just the usual infiltrate-the-gala business, where the gala in question is being held on a private island guarded by everything but sharks with lasers mounted on their fins. You won’t be surprised to hear it takes about three seconds for Anna to get in. You probably won’t be surprised by anything else, either.