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" A dead plaintiff is worth as much as one who is alive but who is severely maimed "
— John Travolta, A Civil Action

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Aladdin (2019)

Narrative nudges include Jasmine's leadership ambitions and a romantic entanglement for the genie. —Matt Anderson (review...)

Aladdin (2019)

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Hot on the heels of The Suicide Squad, The Protégé is another ultra-violent action flick stuffed with some nifty twists that upend the genre.

70 is the new 30

Michael Keaton
Michael Keaton

Roughly midway through The Protégé is one of the most delicious scenes to hit the screen in quite some time. It’s a posh restaurant. Anna (Maggie Q, TV’s Nikita) and Michael Rembrandt (Michael Keaton, Birdman) are dressed to the nines. Their conversation is suggestive, intensified by under-the-table weaponry. And not a single bite of food is consumed.

It’s a setup for one of the year’s more captivating — and unlikely — on-screen pairings.

Keaton (who turns 70 next month) has a great role here; it’s hard not to think about this as some sort of warmup as he gets ready to return as Bruce Wayne in the upcoming Flash movie (along with Ben Affleck in a multiverse twist on Batman). As Rembrandt, he’s a sort of cleaner, looking after the dealings of a tycoon, Edward Hayes (David Rintoul, The Iron Lady), who’s made a fortune dealing some dirty business while masquerading as a concerned citizen raising funds for the underprivileged in need of care in Vietnam.

That’s all good. So is Maggie Q as a remarkably skilled assassin who, by day, quietly runs a rare books store (the kind of books that fetch tens of thousands of dollars, not just the run-of-the-mill rarities). Actually, it’s a cool side gig and a great cover. After knocking off the Butcher of Bucharest in a scene that thoroughly establishes her skills and agility, she heads home with a nice bundle of hard-to-find classics.

But, enter Samuel L. Jackson as Moody. His is not much of a performance. The movie opens in 1991 Vietnam and Jackson’s sporting an awful mustache that looks like it’s poorly glued on. Unfortunately, it’s not part of some sloppy disguise. It’s Moody’s “look” back in the day. Moody’s in Da Nang on his own mission when he comes across young Anna. Their bond is in blood, the blood shed by bullets.

Born Under a Bad Sign

Jackson’s grown rather tiresome with his schtick (he even drops his trademark Pulp Fiction “m’effer” to boot). Still, as with Rembrandt and Anna, effort is made to make Moody human. He lives in a mansion (clearly an antique-filled, culturally rich personal museum built with blood money) and he loves himself a nice guitar. In the privileged world of Moody and Anna, she buys him a 1958 Gibson Flying V guitar (played by Albert King, no less) for a birthday present. He buys her the building which holds her London bookstore because, well, because she’s a good kid.

Sure, in addition to Jackson, the movie has other challenges. For one, there’s a bizarre biker gang led by Robert Patrick. Let’s just say he’s lost a step or two since Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It would’ve been helpful to give the gang of aging hoodlums a little more context instead of simply showing them barreling down the open road of the open countryside, dangerously taking up both lanes of traffic.

There’s plenty of fun to be had watching Q and Keaton duke it out — both while throwing each other around and while brutalizing a band of bad guys. Along the way are some good turns that keep the action lively and unpredictable. But, that said, Moody is involved in the movie’s least effective twist. It’s a rather grating turn of events that could have so easily been rewritten to reduce deleterious forehead smacking out in the audience.

The Desensitized

Maggie Q
Maggie Q

The main storyline unfolds with Anna going on a mission back to Vietnam to find a boy. The trail leads to Edward Hayes, who, as Anna puts it, is “a bad man who’s done very bad things.” Those quote marks are there because, unfortunately, that’s actually a quote of dialogue from the movie.

Okay. The mission of The Protégé as a movie isn’t to impart pearls of wisdom, but “you can’t change where you came from, but you can change where you’re going” is still a sage piece of advice. In fairness, that line fits perfectly into the conclusion, as The Protégé manages to slide in a really sly observation amid all the action and violence.

Toward the end, Maggie revisits the location where Moody first found her as a child. She replays the scene in her mind. The violence that devastated her family. The brutality that was awaiting her. The readily available gun and ammo sitting on a table. It calls out the desensitization of the world, the violence that surrounded her as a child that led her to becoming an icy-veined, cold-blooded assassin.

While director Martin Campbell, perhaps best known for the James Bond flicks Goldeneye with Pierce Brosnan and Casino Royale with Daniel Craig, and seasoned screenwriter Richard Wenk (whose resume includes remakes of The Magnificent Seven and The Mechanic) stumble from time to time, they still put together a solid piece of action entertainment with a lead pairing that’s hard to argue with.