Why ‘The Protege’ Is One of the Year’s Best Surprises

A dynamic villain, plus Maggie Q's serious franchise potential, jump off the screen

Cultural critics have a bone to pick with female action heroes these days.

Too many heroines take down men twice their size (or more). Hollywood is the land of make believe, they argue, but c’mon.

They have a point, and it’s possible the creative team behind “The Protege” listened to their complaints.

Maggie Q stars as yet another hit person out to avenge her mentor’s death. To do so she’ll need to mow down a bevy of formidable foes, but along the way she bleeds, limps and uses whatever tools are within reach to fight back.

It’s not realism in its purest form, but between her vulnerability and the actress’ sensational skills, we never doubt this “Protege” can get the job done.

That’s not even the film’s secret weapon.

The Protégé (2021 Movie) Official Trailer - Michael Keaton, Maggie Q, and Samuel L. Jackson

Q stars as Anna, a Vietnamese woman saved from certain death by Moody (Samuel L. Jackson), a seasoned gun for hire. That was 30 years ago, and now the duo have settled into a cozy, father-daughter bond (in between hits, of course, since Moody trained her in his dangerous profession). The elder assassin is taken out early in the film, forcing Anna to find out the culprits.

So far, so boilerplate, although Q and Jackson develop a rapport that doesn’t feel like wasted screen time. It’s an element action films often avoid in their rush to the next noisy set piece.

Anna’s quest to avenge Moody’s death introduces her to several villains, most notably an older man oozing charisma, confidence and, of course, danger. Michael Keaton continues his career renaissance as Rembrandt, who can’t help but find Anna intoxicating.

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Is Rembrandt the personification of evil? Could he be the ally she needs but doesn’t know it? Or is he the most dangerous foe of all? We won’t spoil things here, just know Q and Keaton’s chemistry is electric. Their fights and flirtations deliver the best reason to see “The Protege.”

The film’s screenplay, solid but unexceptional, spikes whenever the two are together, as if knowing these stars deserve something better that lukewarm jokes and exposition.

Suddenly, “The Protege” is far more than your typical hit men adventure.

The Protégé - Official Escape Clip (2021) Maggie Q, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson

Director Martin Campbell, a Bond veteran with a keen eye for details and derring-do, delivers some strong action sequences. It helps that Q brings plenty of experience to the role, from her days working alongside Jackie Chan to the small screen adventure “Nikita.”

It’s clear she deserves a much larger canvas based on everything we see here.

She’s so good you’ll wish “The Protege” sparks a franchise despite its significant flaws. Let’s start with too many unnecessary flashbacks and a final scene that plays like a cop out. There’s a late movie twist that you sense was coming but it still triggers a sizable eye roll.

What “The Protege” does, beyond beg Hollywood to give Q more action vehicles, is showcase what star power still means to a movie. Neither Keaton nor Jackson can guarantee fannies in the seats, but what they deliver on screen is something few of their peers can emulate.

Combine them with Q’s beauty and confidence, and “The Protege” becomes one of the year’s best surprises.

HiT or Miss: “The Protege” starts like an agreeable, been there killed that, adventure before the Q/Keaton sparks start to fly.

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