the protege maggie q michael keaton samuel l jackson martin campbell

Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson deliver the goods in The Protégé

In what could’ve been a Bruce Willis-style geezer teaser, the two elders support Maggie Q admirably in this enjoyable if forgettable action movie.

Earlier this year, a profile of B-movie producer Randall Emmett popped up on Vulture. The piece explored not only Emmett’s early career and his vision of the industry but also the way in which he goes about putting together his average production. Randall Emmett is the guy behind almost all of the junky Bruce Willis movies that pop up on VOD services every few months. These movies have generic titles like Out of Death or Hard Kill and feature Willis’s bald pate prominently alongside a younger but not necessarily up-and-coming actor like Chad Michael Murray. They’re designed to be filler content, made cheaply in order to turn a profit and allow for the creation of more of these movies down the line. The article calls this type of production a “geezer teaser,” owing mainly to the fact that the film teases its ageing star as the lead only to relegate them to a couple of scenes at most.

This is not exactly a new practice in Hollywood; there are mildly famous American actors who became international superstars based on appearances like this in B-grade co-productions and plenty of currently-working actors wield their fame in the same way. I bring all of this up because Martin Campbell’s The Protégé, on its surface, has all the markings of a geezer teaser. It has two established, nearly-70 male stars supporting a younger but significantly less famous actress. It’s an action movie about assassins existing in a post-John Wick world, so no one would really blame Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson for taking the paycheque gig here.

There is, however, a trump card when it comes to The Protégé: it’s directed by Martin Campbell, who is one of the only action journeymen from the ’90s not to have moved to television or dubious international coproductions at this point. Not all of the movies Campbell has made are good, of course — he made the misbegotten 2011 Green Lantern movie — but his craftsmanship and experience in the genre make The Protégé a perfectly serviceable bit of action hokum… in which both Keaton and Jackson are featured prominently!

Anna (Maggie Q) was saved from certain death by Moody (Jackson) as a child in Vietnam. A mercenary and assassin, Moody trains Anna in his business, which she conducts behind a respectable front as a seller of rare books. When Moody is killed just after his 70th birthday, Anna is faced with the dim prospect of revenge. It’s a path she feels compelled to take, but one that necessitates returning to the trauma of Vietnam in order to trace Moody’s killer. In Vietnam, she gets wrapped up in a decades-old conspiracy that brings fellow assassin Rembrandt (Michael Keaton) out of the woodwork.

the protege maggie q michael keaton samuel l jackson martin campbell
The Protégé stars Maggie Q, Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson

Much of the plot of The Protégé is boilerplate nonsense in the purest action tradition, an excuse to get your badass characters globetrotting and double-fisting pistols as quickly as possible. You’ve seen this movie about assassins with a rigid moral code and a checkered past before (sometimes even without the involvement of Luc Besson at any point in the production) and this particular iteration of it doesn’t really expand on those notions. What The Protégé does have plenty of is satisfying action setpieces delivered with consummate style by Campbell. Much of The Protégé unfolds in brutal, close-quarters firefights that showcase Q’s physicality. An underrated action star whose work in American movies has often undervalued the work she did in Hong Kong action films, Q finds in The Protégé as solid an action vehicle as any of her male counterparts has had.

Even the geezers do their part. Keaton and Jackson could both easily coast on their natural charisma (and we all know that they haven’t been shy about doing just that), but they seem ready and willing to go a little harder. Keaton even has a couple of fight scenes in which stunt doubles seem to be used sparingly, a far cry from the work Bruce Willis is currently putting out in these geezer teasers. Nevertheless, action is at the forefront of The Protégé, and Campbell’s clean, stylish mounting of the action scenes (which feature many instances of my very favourite thing — people having their heads smashed through ceramic surfaces like toilets or sinks) makes it an enjoyable if fleeting experience.

I would not want to overhype The Protégé too much, because its chief qualities are how solid and serviceable it is. It does, however, harken back to a time when audiences were bored with movies being simply solid and serviceable and somewhat forgettable. The chances that The Protégé stays with me longer than a couple of weeks are slim, and in that sense, it certainly fits in with the general aura of a geezer teaser. But it also proves that just because you’re making a familiar genre exercise, you can aim for more than the bare minimum. If all the movies with a pitch like The Protégé’s felt this effortless, maybe Bruce Willis would accept a role in which he has to stand upright again. ■

The Protégé opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Aug. 20. Watch the trailer here:

The Protégé, directed by Martin Campbell

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