Is there any cinematic trope that has been beaten down as badly over the last few decades as the hitman? When “Pulp Fiction” arrived in 1994, it certainly wasn’t a new idea to depict someone who was paid to kill others — but now it’s a quarter century later, and in just the last few weeks we’ve seen “Vanquish,” “Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard,” “Black Widow,” “The Tomorrow War,” “The Ice Road,” and others, all depicting at least one character trained to kill everyone in the room, then walk out in slo-mo looking cool after doing it. If the world were filled with anywhere near this many highly trained assassins, there’d be no one left to kill.
But just when you’re ready to throw your hands up and declare the whole concept picked clean, a film comes along like “The Protégé.” Make no mistake, the title is generic, terrible, and sounds like some straight-to-VOD thing starring Bruce Willis. But that title is also the only notable mistake this clever little film makes, and the result is a must-see movie that is a terrific showcase for the talents of Maggie Q.
The film begins in Da Nang, Vietnam in 1991. There we meet Anna, a little girl with a very big gun hiding in a closet. She is “rescued” by Moody (Samuel L. Jackson), an able assassin with a soft spot for the child who is the only one left standing in a room filled with dead men. Naturally, he takes her under his wing and back to America.
Director Martin Campbell (doing his best work since “Casino Royale” put him in the upper echelon of blockbuster filmmakers, only to have “Green Lantern” knock him back down) wisely keeps returning to that Da Nang sequence, doling out small breadcrumbs about the relationship between Moody and Anna — who we’re introduced to soon enough as a butt-kicking adult in the form of Maggie Q.
A few early scenes of happiness and familial friendship come crashing down after Moody starts asking questions people don’t want to answer about dead people who might not really be dead. This leads to Anna’s worst nightmare realized — a brutal hit has taken out her mentor, and whoever did it is now coming after her.
But just because Anna is in mourning, that doesn’t mean she isn’t composed enough to cut down each and every person she must to climb a criminal ladder that might offer her vengeance. This is where the film gets really fun, and to give away any of the well-conceived twists and turns would be as cruel as the many villains met and mowed down along the way.
One of these baddies happens to be Michael Keaton’s Rembrandt — an ascot-wearing, Poe-quoting, Anna-admiring baddie who may or may not be on the verge of giving into his kinder instincts. From the jump, he flirts with Anna via well-written, playful dialogue that longs for a way they can get together — even if every beat of the story tells us only one can live. The duo also have multiple scenes of hand-to-hand combat that unfold like Astaire and Rogers dance numbers, the two perfectly complementing — and nearly killing — each other.