‘The Protege’ Understood the Assignment and Studied Up On Action Films Past

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CHICAGO – I’ve always felt that the line between being a spy or an assassin has always been blade-thin. Both kill people based on the orders of someone else. They are always highly trained in fighting and gun-fu. There is a great chance that they will be absolutely charming and unusually attractive because the job demands it. Hell, they might even be prone to age-inappropriate relationships that stem from mommy or daddy issues. The true deciding factor on your future path will depend on who picks you to be your mentor, and here is where we find the origin of The Protégé.

There are few genres as forgiving as the action genre. Here you’ll find that the plot is the least important element as long as the leads are charismatic enough, and the fight choreography is on point. There is so much more than that to love in The Protégé that you’re more than willing to not look too closely at the stitching binding all of these rehashed elements together and just enjoy the product as a whole. Writer Richard Wenk weaves familiar vengeance-driven storylines into this film, bringing back popular elements from his previous films like The Equalizer and The Expendables. There’s a gruff, brutal demeanor that guides this tale, but there is also a playful part that helps develop an emotional core amongst the carnage. Genre-blending can be an especially difficult thing to achieve, especially when procedural action films don’t lean into the absurdism they oftentimes deliver. That is a non-issue here, especially when the back and forth exchanges are so full of humor, fun flirting, and punchlines that usually end with actual punches.

Photo credit: Lionsgate

The comedy is so professionally peppered throughout that it gives us some much-needed levity between our heroine’s dark past and her ever bleaker present. The jokes would be nothing without the talent that delivers them, and with comedy pros like Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton, it all comes off as effortless. The real stand out here is Maggie Q, who not only proves to be up to any challenge but almost always surpasses expectations in even the blandest of films. Maggie Q continues to be the single most important factor in elevating a so-so action film to an enjoyable one. The nuances that she puts into every character and every line delivery almost feel like they are unworthy for some of the material she is given, but in this case, it adds a depth that solidifies her place as one of Hollywood’s most underrated actresses.

With a bit more fine-tuning, like better world-building, this film could have easily been a franchise-making movie, a la John Wick. They shared some similarities, like the exploration of an entire underground world that exists in the most mundane of places like a bookstore or a dry cleaner. Going all-in on developing this shady underbelly that exists just behind the scenes of the “real” world would have given the audience something more to be invested in. Instead, we do get something to latch onto that drives us to the end of the film, but not enough to guide us into needing another installment. That being said, the sense of finality we get at the end of this one is satisfaction enough, especially when there may or may not be potential for a sequel/spin-off.

Photo credit: Lionsgate

The John Wick comparison goes well beyond just the world-building and extends to the strong fight choreography. There aren’t any katana battles on motorcycles or anything, but that is mostly because their fighting style is much more grounded in realism, for better or worse. Director Martin Campbell’s experience lends itself beautifully to The Protégé by combining his James Bond/espionage past, with some Zorro-style fun, and just a dash of Green Lantern irreverence. The action sequences don’t hold any punches, offering us the brutal, gruesome reality of being a trained assassin. Grounding this in reality ends up helping it as far as believability. When we see our protagonist face a gauntlet of guns and knives, only to come out unscathed, we lose interest. There is so much vulnerability to be had here, not just on a physical level, but an emotional one too. Even though we know everyone’s past, we root for them regardless of their actions, and that’s exactly the kind of character development we deserve from an end-of-summer actioner.

“The Protégé” in theaters on August 20th. Featuring Maggie Q, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Robert Patrick, Ray Fearon, Ori Pfeffer, and Patrick Malahide. Directed by Martin Campbell. Written by Richard Wenk. Rated “R”

Jon Espino, film and video game critic, HollywoodChicago.com

Film & Television Show Critic

© 2021 Jon Espino, HollywoodChicago.com

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