There were a few moments I found cringe-worthy in this assassin-versus-assassin film, “The Protégé,” but none of them have to do with Maggie Q’s portrayal of a gritty, survivor whose rough past in Vietnam propelled her into life as an assassin. Circumstances tear this teen away from her family and she finds a surrogate father in a high profile killer, Moody Dutton (Samuel L. Jackson). When Moody himself is assassinated, Maggie Q’s character, Anna Dutton, does what any good daughter would do; she tracks down the killer and that takes her back to Vietnam.
The film begins in Da Nang, Vietnam. This is not the Vietnam locked in a war against America and communism. This is Vietnam in 1991; that’s only nine years before President Bill Clinton would visit.
In the pouring rain, we follow a tall figure in a conical East Asian farmer’s hat and a dark green camp pancho. Walking down the wet corridor of an apartment building, he finds an open door and dead bodies. There is only one survivor, a young girl with her hair erratically cut short, hiding in an armoire with a Barretta. “Did you do all that?” Moody asks. He takes her with him. Looking back, Anna remembers, “He didn’t save my life; he gave me a life.” And what a life it is.
Thirty years later, the girl resurfaces in Bucharest, Romania. At the Grand Hotel Continental, a man comes looking for Vali (George Pistereanu), but only find Anton in bed with two naked women. Vali is gone. He’s been kidnapped and in two hours, the kidnappers want €3 million. Anna arrives casually dressed, driving a blue van to face eight men. They rough her up, frisk her and get her cellphone. She’s taken to Vali’s father, Don Preda (Velizar Binev), the Butcher of Bucharest, who gladly gives her the money, but warns her, he plans to take it back and kill her. Anna tells him, “I didn’t come here for money; I came here for you.” She was there to murder Don Preda. Moody is there on sniper duty and the two escape.
Moody and Ana are a team. “We just find people who don’t want to be found.” Moody reports back, “This is R&D Plumbing. Your leak has been fixed.” Moody is old and has an ominous cough.
The team doesn’t live together and they have a few secrets from each other. In London, Ana manages an eclectic bookstore. She explains her three-week absence as part of a search for rare antique books and comes back with a few volumes. She shares a spacious apartment with a cat.
Moody has a palatial manor with a no-nonsense housekeeper and plenty of collectibles. For his 70th birthday, Anna gets him a 1958 Gibson Flying V, so rare that there are only 90 in the whole world. Feeling his mortality, Moody takes Ana to his barn where beneath the building is his secret high tech lair. He’s looking for someone: Lucas Hayes. The last record of the boy is in 1998, Paris.
“Our past is never where we left it. We all have scars and you stare at them long enough and you remember,” Moody tells Anna. Moody wants to unravel a mystery, but there are some mysteries best left unsolved. Anna turns to her friend Benny who runs high tech searches in the back of a dry cleaning business. While Anna waits for the info, she’s visited at her bookstore by a man with a gravely voice who wants a book that is impossible to get, but is offered a rare book of Edgar Allen Poe poetry. The man, Michael Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), leaves his card with Anna, asking her to call him.
In my head I’m screaming, Michael Keaton is too old for Maggie Q. Don’t do it Hollywood!
Looking for Lucas, marks Moody, Anna and Anna’s informant Benny. Moody and Benny are killed and assassins attempt to kill Anna at her bookshop. This was the first cringe-worthy scene. Bibliophiles will wonder if any books were really shredded or shot to pieces in the making of this film. I can’t answer that for you.
All this is linked to Vietnam and the murder of Edward Arthur Hayes. Ana changes from long reddish brown hair to a short black do and lands in Vietnam searching for allies when she confronts a White bikers gang.
I’ll leave you there, but be assured there will be torture, murder and brutal confrontations. There will not be rape, which seems, from the annals of torture, particularly of women, unlikely, but it allows Anna to be overtly sexy without the men appearing to be disgustingly lascivious. They are murderers on both sides, but some only kill the men who are evil.
Anna will eventually return to where the film began, where her journey into assassin-hood started and you’ll get her backstory. If you’re wondering what the sign there means (Truyền Thống Văn Hóa), according to Google translate it means “cultural tradition.”
Director Martin Campbell also helmed the Jackie Chan revenge film, “The Foreigner” (2017), where a dad tries to find and kill the political terrorists who are responsible for his daughter’s death. Revenge justifies so many things and killing is one of them. here’s a very raw and primal energy in both of them and an interesting symmetry between them. Campbell with cinematographer David Tattersall (“Star Wars: Episodes I-III” and “Die Another Day”) create some beautiful scenes. Tattersall also worked on “The Foreigner.”
Chan is well-known for doing his own stunts and Maggie Q is his real protégé. In an interview, Maggie Q said she did most of her stunts, except those involving glass and getting hit by a car. I can believe Chan taking down guys younger than him, but seeing Keaton take down three trained Vietnamese assassins in “The Protége,” stretched believability unless you’d like to believe in the eternal supremacy of Whiteness. There is a quiet, coiled ferocity in the long dialogue scenes between Maggie Q and Keaton, but I still shake my head at how contrived that becomes. In The Protégé,” writer Richard Wenk (“The Equalizer,” “The Magnificent Seven” remake and “American Renegades”), the Vietnam presented is one dominated by White men, even in a reopened Vietnam and Black men, not so far behind, but the Asian man almost invisible in the halls of power, even corrupt power.
“The Protégé” is rated R for violence, brief nudity and sexual references. “The Protégé” opened on 20 August 2021 in the US and Canada.