Picture the ideal modern femme fatale action feature.
Hopefully, this beautiful heroine will be defined by more than just a pretty face, sex appeal and a gun in her dainty little hand. Perhaps she’d even have just one healthy relationship with another female character or go as far as to have some nuanced connection to her womanhood. At the bare minimum, certainly the protagonist should have sensical, high-stakes motivations, and the film some decent action. Now, scribble over all those plans: You are now prepared to make “The Protégé.”
“The Protégé” had the potential to redefine, or at least refine, an often faux-empowering film genre. The movie follows Anna (Maggie Q), an assassin on her revenge plot against the murderer of her mentor, Moody (Samuel L. Jackson). On her quest to find the man responsible for Moody’s death, Anna develops a mutual obsession with another killer, Michael Rembrandt (Michael Keaton). There was promise in this plot; Anna should have been an incredibly skilled, dangerous badass, as confident in her sexuality and aspirations as in her ability to kill. Unfortunately, “The Protégé” takes no steps forward and a big step back.
It can often be quite obvious when a piece of media featuring a woman is written by a man, but it is truly rare and mind-boggling to find this phenomenon occurring as blatantly as it does in this film. Director Martin Campbell succumbs to this skewed perspective as well. While there’s nothing wrong with a female character being attractive or receptive to men’s romantic advances, it becomes incredibly frustrating and uncomfortable to hear Maggie Q deliver unrealistically sexual lines in such an unnatural, gratuitously seductive setting.
For instance, take the scene where the film’s leading lady sits down for dinner with Rembrandt, when — with guns pointed at each other’s genitals — Anna can’t help but bite her lip in arousal at the fact that her date knows both Edgar Allen Poe and the brand of shoe she wears. The bar is on the floor.
Viewers will be hard-pressed to find an on-screen romance less appealing than that of “The Protégé,” which is shallow, half-baked, and much like the rest of the film, confusing. The unshakeable gut feeling that the movie’s lovers are a sour, misfit match is not helped by the 27-year age gap between the leads.
Tragically, “The Protégé” also can’t redeem itself with its dialogue or acting, which are almost comically artificial. Jackson’s talent is completely wasted on his shallow character shackled to a banal script. The film can’t even deliver so much as some visually interesting action for their action-thriller. Anna’s greatest skill is her ability to magically appear behind whoever she’s fighting and attack from behind, a maneuver which is not only impossible and unexplained, but also used in every fight scene. Though Anna’s character isn’t particularly well-rounded or unique, her superficial coolness isn’t enough to make the audience invested either.
Beyond the characters, the plot itself is also unnecessarily convoluted — and given its lack of depth, that’s almost impressive. By the second act, it is nearly impossible to follow the story, a result of both faulty setups and an illogical progression of events. Instead of building suspense, each twist only stacks confusion on top of confusion and sends the audience deeper down a rabbit hole of questions. As Anna becomes more obviously lackluster, the other characters lose themselves, blurring into one another like a sea of nondescript old white men. It is a headache trying to keep track of who is who and who wants what from whom. It feels as if the film forgot first.
Amid its flaws, “The Protégé” is not one of those movies that is so bad it’s good — it is purely painful to watch. Save yourself two hours and a bad taste in your mouth; this mentee movie needs a lot more guidance.