The Protégé ignites a need to relive the summer of 2006 in Vietnam, when the third Mission: Impossible was released. Despite having Tom Cruise and the M:I brand, none of the two was necessarily—or even was—why print dailies, online outlets, Yahoo! 360° pages and personal Y!M windows were fired up for the film. All the spotlight was on an actress with Vietnamese roots named Lý Mỹ Kỳ. That’s the local transliteration of “Maggie Q.”
She created buzz again the next summer, the time to Live Free or Die Hard as villainess Mai Linh. Rinse and repeat when Divergent rolled out. Arts and culture writers in 2015 must have felt a true high, hopefully, when she came to the country for a campaign to curb rhino poaching.
In short, Q is a name of note at home, and it’s never not exciting to receive signals that someone artistic in your community is living this “made it” status. That anecdote will be absent this year, however, as cinemas in Vietnam are shuttered due to the pandemic’s new Delta phase. This is yet the time or place for news of Q headlining the actioner The Protégé.
And that’s a shame, as being the pro assassin Anna here confirms the long-held thought that Q’s Zhen Lei should not have been a “one-and-done” member of Ethan Hunt’s team. In M:I III, she proves that she is both a beaut and a badass; in The Protégé, she gets to take the beauty and badassery to the next level. This would ultimately be more than just gaining admittance to the John Wick-esque quadrant of the action market (the Keanu Reeves-led series is also from Lionsgate).
At its core, this is a necessity if Anna wants to find out who had disrupted her London life and—as seen in the trailers! — killed her adopted hitman father Moody (Samuel L. Jackson). The chaos seems to be connected to the last target Anna’s potty-mouthed, loud and feelings-be-damned mentor had tasked her to find: one “Edward Hayes,” apparently a seller of lethal weapons last located in Đà Nẵng in Central Vietnam. A contemporary and vibrant—yet a hotbed for hostility — version of it, anyway.
As this is a manhunt-slash-vengeance run, flying bullets and falling bodies, or vice versa, are expected. Still, what can be disarming is the manner the violence is designed and framed, all the way from the quick first kill to the climactic kaboom everything is measured and clear. It’s somewhat depressing for this feature to be a surprise, but then 2021 did gift us with the choppy Mortal Kombat and the hazy Snake Eyes. The “trick” seems to be having a director who, at the very least, knows their audiences are seeing their action film because of the action, and Martin Campbell sure fits that bill.
Many of the beats that go boom-bang-break take place within buildings and rooms, but limited space is a non-issue for Campbell, d.p. David Tattersall and editor Angela M. Catanzaro—all of whom have worked on The Foreigner, spiritually this film’s predecessor but with much more politics in play. Strikes and swings can turn brutal in a flash, one in particular reawakens the fear of the receipt spike.
An affinity for the interiors, though, does defeat the hyper-focus on location in Richard Wenk’s plot. Đà Nẵng has a lot of involvement in Anna’s shaping, but most of the time it is seen it’s a distant image outside a window or an implied space (that said, it’s understandable if the producers are keeping the permit providers happy and don’t want to scramble for substitutes, something that happened to Tomorrow Never Dies.)
That isn’t the only problem with The Protégé’s scripting, unfortunately. Despite the repeated emphasis on an emotional and character-rattling current in Anna’s journey, in the forms of Đà Nẵng being home to a dark childhood memory involving drug smugglers and the hired gun Rembrandt (Michael Keaton) who can’t resist her, it never seems to surface.
Had director Campbell’s harrowing—if hard to specify—imagery not been there, the tension of home is negligible. Had there been more wisdom, maybe the tension between Anna and Michael would have been excised; at the moment the way it’s glossed over conjures next-to-no heat and won’t be able to justify its inclusion. For the latter, besides the flat writing, Keaton seems to be a sleepwalker when he is meant to be this suited silvertongue who knows his kicks (bonus points for the anti-“enhanced interrogation techniques” sentiment).
It is also strange to fuse so much coolness into a “friend-of-your-father” figure, in this case Billy Boy (Robert Patrick), the gruffy head of a motorcycle gang in Vietnam (!), only to make him a throwaway presence. What might be strangest, still, and again, is to build Vietnam up as a character, one who can influence our characters’ emotions and actions, just to yet again reanimate the ghosts of exotic set-dressing and non-local populace.
Sure, Maggie Q’s presence alone can rep the Vietnamese element in The Protégé, but it’s unreasonable to let her perform that role on her own. She did not amass all that butt-kicking, equalizer-driven experience only to be the group project’s A-grade harbinger. Especially when the project is a summer blockbuster.
The Protégé is in cinemas on August 20. You can watch the trailer here.