Maggie Q, star of Divergent and Nikita, is deserving of a leading role, but The Protégé isn’t deserving of Maggie Q. The Protégé is a by-the-numbers lady-assassin action film in the vein of Anna, Atomic Blonde, and Ava. It only feels daring in its willingness to defy the subgenre’s alliterative title pattern. Aside from that, it’s all standard post-John Wick fare: After being betrayed, a beautiful female killer vows vengeance and is responsible for a worldwide spree of violence. “Murder me, Maggie Q,” would be an appropriate response to The Protégé, but succumbing to the thirst means putting up with a lot of nonsense.
The Protégé is a film about a woman made by men, which is a common occurrence in this subgenre, as evidenced by the recent Gunpowder Milkshake. The titular character is created by director Martin Campbell and writer Richard Wenk using the usual unsurprisingly bland blend of gender stereotypes. Anna Dutton (Maggie Q) is a badass who can recognize guns by the sound their bullets make as they enter the chamber, but she also wears Manolo Blahniks and designer clothing. She bakes apple pies from scratch in her multi-thousand-dollar La Cornue oven and can keep her cool during multiple waterboarding sessions. The character only holds together because of her impenetrable self-assurance, and the action scenes only have any verve or thrill because of her commitment as a martial artist and stuntwoman. None of the men in her life (and it is, of course, only men in her life) can keep up with her.
In a nod to Léon: The Professional and Kill Bill: Volume 1, assassin Moody Dutton (Samuel L. Jackson) takes Anna under his wing in Vietnam in 1991. She’s a young girl (Eva Nguyen Thorsen) with a gun in her hand and a smattering of rebel bodies all around her at the time. That girl has grown up to be Anna, Moody’s close friend and business partner in the gun-for-hire business, thirty years later. They live opulently in London, with opulent homes and top-of-the-line cars, they work all over Europe, and they’re each other’s only true family.
In a nod to Léon: The Professional and Kill Bill: Volume 1, assassin Moody Dutton (Samuel L. Jackson) takes Anna under his wing in Vietnam in 1991. She’s a young girl (Eva Nguyen Thorsen) with a gun in her hand and a smattering of rebel bodies all around her at the time. That girl has grown up to be Anna, Moody’s close friend and business partner in the gun-for-hire business, thirty years later. They live opulently in London, with opulent homes and top-of-the-line cars, they work all over Europe, and they’re each other’s only true family.lf.
The Protégé is twisted into a pretzel made up of varying agendas, hidden identities, and shared histories, aside from the “female assassin goes home to become whole” trope, which is so familiar that Black Widow extended it into an entire film. All of this revolves around Anna, which means Maggie Q spends the majority of her time in scenes with men decades her senior, including Jackson, who plays her father figure, Keaton, who plays her love interest, and Robert Patrick, who plays a motorcycle-riding ally named Billy Boy.
Each of those actors brings their own late-career freewheeling energy to the table: Jackson is in the same mode as he was in both Hitman’s Bodyguard films, while Keaton is basically reprising Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming. While the familiarity of these performances makes for easy viewing, it also imbues Anna’s pairings with a sense of monotony. She’s not treated like a wunderkind or trainee so much as everyone’s daughter and that dynamic adds to the ickiness when the film pits her and Keaton against each other, bodies grinding in what we’re supposed 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.)
The Protégé often feels stuck in one gear, despite Maggie Q’s ability to hold her own against these bombastic personalities by underplaying her line deliveries and relying on slightly bemused sarcasm. Only during the action scenes, which benefit from her grace and power, does the film come to life. She stabs a man in the neck with a knife hidden inside a cellphone in one sequence, then kicks out at other attackers in opposite directions. In another, she loops a dagger in a wild arc, scurries up a vent system, tiptoes along a narrow pipe as bullets whiz by, then launches herself off a balcony, rappelling down several stories using a fire hose.
Maggie Q balances her way out of a noose in this film. She fires through a refrigerator door, drenching her assailant in milk and food shards while flipping, kicking, and shooting. But all of this occurs in the same film in which she is asked to maintain a straight face while saying, “You point a gun at my pussy, and then you ask me to bed?” “I like the way you dress.” Some of The Protégé’s flaws can be overlooked because the film gives Maggie Q a strong leadership role, but that line pushes it too far. The Protégé can’t just let Anna kick ass: it has to tack on a clumsy romantic subplot whose primary purpose appears to be to insist on Anna’s sexuality. Is this relevant to the current story? Not at all. It’s a shame Maggie Q was so preoccupied with carrying The Protégé on her back that she didn’t have time to rewrite the film’s embarrassing script.