Is it just me or every action flick these days always want to be associated with John Wick. Granted it’s a lucrative franchise but really, the secret ingredient for its success is Keanu Reeves. So the same studio hopes they could launch another action franchise with yet another actor of Euro-Asian descent. Maggie Q, who Irish/Vietnamese was apparently discovered by legendary action star Jackie Chan when she was doing films in Hong Kong. I remember her from a few episodes of CW’s Nikita, but haven’t seen her in anything since, so it’s cool to see her finally get a feature leading role as Anna in The Protégé.
The movie starts off with the protagonist Anna’s origin story back in Saigon on a grim, rainy night. Discovered by a legendary assassin named Moody (Samuel L. Jackson, natch!) as a young girl, he immediately adopted her and trained her to be a contract killer. Director Martin Campbell didn’t waste time to let us know just how skilled and deadly Anna is while on a job in Bucharest, Romania. It’s definitely a cool intro introducing Maggie Q’s potent cred as an assassin. Cool as a cucumber, she has no qualms in killing people… in fact she seems to relish in it.
The fact that Campbell has directed two of my favorite Bond films, Goldeneye and Casino Royale, there’s a deliberate Bond-like vibe about the movie. There’s the exotic locations, stunning locations, and the fact that Anna is also based in London. It’s actually refreshing to see a bad-ass female heroine who isn’t morose or have a chip on her shoulder, she seems happy living her double life as a contract killer and rare bookstore owner. She’s shown quoting Edgar Allan Poe though there’s not a single scene of her actually reading a book, ahah. But really, who has time when you’ve got people to kill and vengeance to pull off.
Let’s just say the first half hour of the film is really enjoyable and promising. I enjoyed the surprisingly sweet father/son dynamics between her and Sam Jackson, especially the moment she gave him a very expensive vintage electric guitar. Clearly being a contract killer is massively lucrative business, Moody’s palatial home looks like those owned by Bond villains! Then there’s the somewhat of a meet-cute with Michael Keaton‘s Rembrandt at her store. Now at this point, I was more amused by this flirty exchange despite the nearly 30-year age difference between the two actors. More on this later.
You know the action trope of ‘you can’t escape the past,’ well that’s especially true for assassins. Anna finds Moody brutally killed one night, which leads her back to her home country to track down his killer. I have to say the main reason to see this movie is to see MaggieQ kick ass and she absolutely delivers on that front. She trades her long reddish hair with a sharp, jet black bob-cut that shows off her features and makes her look even cooler and meaner.
There are some genuinely thrilling action stunts inside a sleek skyscraper where she continually eludes her captors. She’s proven lethal even with just a piece of metal tray or twisted sheet as she is with a gun. I love when an actress playing a femme fatale looks believable that she can perform her own stunts, and she sure fights with style.
Unfortunately style is mostly what this movie has going for it. Campbell’s direction is uneven, the more thrilling bits are often held back by overuse of unnecessary flashbacks. Writer Richard Wenk‘s (The Equalizer, The Expendables) is laden with clichés and throwaway characters. In fact, one of the actors Ray Fearon, has a strong presence but not sure what the point of his character was and he’s gone before you even figure it out. The twisty plot is overly convoluted that it takes the fun out of the movie in the third act. I think there’s something intriguing here, but it’s not explained well at all. It doesn’t matters that the actual villain is so laughably weak he seems like an afterthought. What’s worse, they even made an initially intriguing character but make him rather pointless delivering some morality speech about choosing the path of evil. SPOILER ALERT [highlight to read] Why make Moody come back to life (a la Nick Fury who only pretended to have been killed) if you’re going to have him die in a murder suicide?!! And what’s with THAT ending?? It’s frustrating to see all that build-up ultimately leads to a lame payback.
As for the half-baked romance between Anna and Rembrandt, let’s just say it’s a hit and miss. I enjoyed watching the flirtatious banter in the restaurant which seems to be modeled after the Casino Royale‘s train scene between Bond and Vesper. Even the way Anna, in a heart-stopping red dress, leaves the room reminds me of when Vesper walked through the Casino with all the men drooling over her. The seductive vibe between them is fun initially, though I think it would have been much sexier (and less cringe-worthy) had the filmmakers kept the sexual tension brimming but left it at that. As much as I enjoy seeing Keaton in a movie, I feel like he’s strangely miscast here as an action AND romantic lead. On the way home my husband and I thought perhaps someone like Pierce Brosnan would’ve been a better fit and kinda fun to see him as a sort of Bond baddie. But hey, at least they gave Keaton quite a bit to do here in terms of action, compared to Robert Patrick who’s completely wasted here.
Despite its shortcomings and there are plenty, I still think it’s worth a look for all the MaggieQ’s action scenes alone. It’s as if Campbell was making his vision of a female Bond, a powerful killing machine with equal style and sex appeal. Except she wouldn’t need Q as she’s already born with it (sorry I can’t help it!!) In any case, based on her commanding presence and phenomenal action work, I hope we get to see more of her in the leading role, but hopefully with a more compelling narrative well worth her (and our) time.