Is it just me or do assassin movies seem to be really hit or miss? Yep, an assassin pun right of the gates. It’s a serious question though. Leon: The Professional is pretty much the gold standard. The first three Bourne movies were pretty solid, but the last two were not. The Hitman and its sequel (Agent 47) were meh and gahhh. The James Bond movies tend to be good, bad, good, bad, etc. Liam Neeson movies are very Liam Neeson-y. They even tried to make Angelina Jolie an assassin star and you probably can’t even name the assassin movies she was in (at least one of them wasn’t atrocious). The list goes on and on and on and we come to the latest assassin flick, The Protege.
(Mild SPOILERS ahead. I’ll aim to keep them minimal.)
Anna (Maggie Q) is an accomplished assassin and partner/apprentice to Moody (Samuel L. Jackson). The two of them are an unlikely pair, Moody discovering Anna when she was just a young girl, hiding in a closet in her home in Vietnam after killing her parents’ murderers. Moody took her back to London and taught her everything he knows about being an assassin and the two embark on a very successful partnership. After the opening flashback scene, the film establishes the lethality of the duo as they complete a contract and their close friendship as they banter about the job and, later, celebrate Moody’s seventieth birthday. While there, Moody asks Anna to help him find someone and the main plot of the film kicks off.
While waiting for information to come back, Anna is attending to her day job as a rare books dealer when in walks Michael Rembrandt (Michael Keaton). The two of them have a meet-cute, bantering back and forth over quarter-million dollar books as potential gifts for loved ones. It’s adorable until you start to wonder how many decades of age separate the two (twenty-seven years separate the actors, with Keaton a month away from turning seventy – not so adorable now, is it?). That night, Anna goes to visit Moody to give him another gift and she finds Moody’s house in shambles, his home assistant dead, and a body in the bathtub whose face is a mangled mess. Stricken that Moody is dead, Anna is determined to complete the mission Moody gave her while also exacting revenge on Moody’s assailants.
The rest of the film plays out like a standard action-thriller. Anna keeps digging to identify the mystery person Moody sent her after while fending off waves of bad guys, though not without having a serious setback. Meanwhile, Michael is frustrated by his colleagues, especially Edward Hayes (David Rintoul), whose methods are brute force rather than elegant finesse. While Edward may dress the part and enjoy some expensive liquor, he is definitely Michael’s inferior. It’s a case of good cop, bad cop where the good cop is far more terrifying than the bad cop.
What I enjoyed most about the film was the quality of the acting and of the fight scenes. While I vaguely remember Maggie Q from Live Free or Die Hard and never watched Nikita, I had an idea that she could hold her own in the fights department. She was graceful and effortless in those scenes and it was a delight to behold. To my surprise, so was Michael Keaton. Maybe not as graceful, his body just doesn’t quite move that way anymore, but he was very believable as the veteran lethal weapon. And the performances outside of the action were even better. I know Maggie Q is a veteran actor, but starring alongside Keaton and Jackson is going to be intimidating to the vast majority of actors out there. Maggie Q meets the moment and then some, quite comfortable in her role and easily keeping up with the two old hands.
What really makes the movie is the actors are given actual character arcs and development to work with. Most assassin movies can barely be bothered to develop their characters beyond hi-yah and pew-pew. This film actually takes the time to make the audience actually feel an emotion or two about Anna, Moody, and Michael. Michael is especially interesting, playing the big villain’s main enforcer, but not written as an idiot. The rapport he develops with Anna and the conflict he has with his own colleagues makes it tough for the audience to decide whether to like him or hate him. It’s a pretty unique thing to find in an August action flick and one I hope to find in future films.
I don’t want you to think the film is particularly great. It is pretty standard action fare and quite predictable. It even features a climax where I could hear Ryan George from Pitch Meetings (Google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about. You’ll thank me later) saying “it’s going to be difficult for Anna to get past all that security,” then “actually it’s going to be super easy, barely an inconvenience.” And, when you find out who Moody wanted to track down and why he wanted to find him, you’ll be pretty disappointed. Putting that aside, it’s the kind of film that is better than expected, hitting its target dead center.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back or Maggie Q or two old guys will find you.