The Protégé review: Michael Keaton and Maggie Q do a dangerous

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The Protégé review: Michael Keaton and Maggie Q do a dangerous dance in hollow thriller
By Mary SollosiAugust 20, 2021 at 12:44 AM EDT

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Michael Keaton is celebrating his upcoming 70th birthday with a pair of new releases, as disparate as any on his diverse resume. The prolific Batman, Birdman, and Beetlejuice star could possibly enter the 2022 awards race this Labor Day weekend when Sara Colangelo’s Sundance title Worth (which premiered at last January’s fest, before we knew theaters would shut down for a year-plus) hits Netflix. But before we get to that, first comes The Protégé, for which you need not save any space on your Oscar ballot.

Not that the film aspires to be trophy bait; Martin Campbell’s cat-and-mouse assassin thriller is self-aware enough as a kinetic genre entry. As it spills more blood and more convoluted backstory, however, it reveals an empty center.

Maggie Q stars as Anna, a highly trained killer with a musician’s ear for the clicks of a handgun and a lover’s passion for classic poetry and beautiful books, so we know she has a soul. She got into her particular line of work (murder, not rare books, though she does do both) in childhood when she was taken in as a little girl by the powerful assassin Moody (Samuel L. Jackson), who found her hiding among the victims of a massacre in Vietnam. The killer duo makes a great team — until a new contract that would take Moody and Anna back to Vietnam puts a target on their backs that only Anna manages to survive.

Thus begins her strange journey, half completing the contract and half getting revenge and/or answers for Moody’s death. We don’t really know, and we don’t really care, because the whole point is to watch Anna repeatedly outsmart and sometimes beat up the army of baddies chasing her down. Some of Q’s action sequences — she did most of her own stunts, despite a recent spine surgery — are a genuine thrill, but they lose their power as the movie gets bogged down in murky plot.

Michael Keaton Role Call- The Protégé

Michael Keaton in ‘The Protégé.’ | CREDIT: SIMON VARSANO/LIONSGATE
Much of that plot comes via Anna’s interactions with Rembrandt (Keaton), a shady character who first hits on her in her bookshop — which feels slightly wrong, considering the stars’ 28-year age gap — before revealing his more complicated role in the larger conspiracy. The actor brings an appealing sense of mischief and air of worldliness to the part, which was written without much sense of anything nor air of anything else. Much as Keaton elevates the bland material, however, the mismatched pair’s flirtation (which not only continues but in fact very much intensifies) is so jarring it distracts from whatever assassin drama they’re talking about through their innuendos.

Richard Wenk’s mostly uninspiring screenplay doesn’t attempt anything too inventive and does include some regrettable nothings like “He’s a bad man who’s done very bad things.” But the script basically manages what it needs to, which is to guide Q through a series of brutal fight scenes and give Jackson the chance to yell “No more f—ing birthdays! Take birthdays and shove them up your ass!” What more can we demand of a late-summer thriller? Grade: C+

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