Nearly everyone we meet in “The Protégé” is on the brink of retirement, all but one or two of them nudged violently in that direction by Maggie Q’s title character. Anna specializes in finding things “that don’t want to be found” (as a cover, she maintains a rare book store), but her true gift seems to lie in disposing of them once they’ve been located, which Q handily demonstrates in the operation that opens the movie, one that ends with a hard-to-reach Russian crime boss floating face down in his private pool.
Anna is ruthlessly efficient, but also works best as a team, paired with mentor Moody (Samuel L. Jackson) in a combo one wishes the good folks at Millennium (who make movies with the grimacing likes of Sylvester Stallone, Gerald Butler and Jason Statham) had thought of long before. Here, the premise was suggested by “The Equalizer” writer Richard Wenk, and while his script is pure pulp, the execution assumes an air of plausibility in the hands of “Casino Royale” director Martin Campbell. This is one of those movies in which assassins are so experienced, they can recognize what model of gun is being pointed at them by the signature sound it makes when cocked. They can also quote obscure poetry.
The movie wants us to believe that Anna acquired such skills from Moody, whose multimillion-dollar home (and equally impressive art collection) has been financed by those aforementioned finding-and-disposing gigs. He claims never to have killed someone who didn’t deserve it, which means his conscience are clean — how fortunate for them — whereas their latest target is the other kind of killer, whose expensive, heavily protected compound was paid for by crimes too dastardly to trouble audiences with. This particular monster (whose identity is better left a surprise, even if it feels like a missed opportunity for a juicy cameo) is protected by several layers of professionals, including Michael Keaton as a man who probably would’ve made an ideal partner for Anna, if they didn’t find themselves on opposite sides of a high-stakes shooting match.
There’s precious little in “The Protégé” that audiences haven’t seen before in some form or another, but that’s hardly a liability, since the script recombines those familiar elements in such entertaining ways, counting on Q, Jackson and Keaton to make these stock characters come alive. Although Q has done her share of action roles (from “Mission: Impossible III” to The CW’s “Nikita” TV series, in which she starred), Hollywood has somehow failed to capitalize on that potential, and here she reminds what fun it can be to watch an elegant and limber leading lady cycle through half a dozen flattering disguises and different-colored wigs, all in service of dispensing justice.
From “Alias” to “Atomic Blonde,” it’s a proven formula when the casting is right, and Q makes practically anything that’s asked of her look easy — whether it’s diving for cover as henchmen reduce her bookstore to confetti or jumping off a third-story balcony and riding the emergency fire hose all the way to ground level. There are some who find it tough to swallow certain actors as action heroes (the snipes against Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft come to mind), but gladly accept stunt doubles standing in for a rickety Roger Moore or Tyler Perry as Alex Cross.
What matters most is the suspension of disbelief, and Campbell specializes in creating an atmosphere where audiences are surprised by the plot twists rather than the characters’ abilities, while Q can handle both the physical demands and the stone-cold dramatics the part requires. “The Protégé” offers flashbacks throughout to a turning point in Anna’s childhood in Vietnam, starting with the moment Moody discovered her, hiding in a cabinet, having dispatched a room full of mercenaries. He instantly recognizes her aptitude for killing, and so the decades spent learning English, martial arts and marksmanship can be elided without question.
Campbell also knows where to put the camera in order to give a sense of basic geography (where both adversaries and exits are relative to Anna at any given time) and fight-scene choreography (it’s almost always Q doing her own stunts). The director’s style can feel a little old school — as in the opening shot of a shadowy man’s foot stepping into a neon-reflecting rain puddle — but make no mistake: That’s a comfort when compared with the relative incompetence of so many recent genre movies. Without some degree of artificiality, the movie wouldn’t be permitted to explore the unusual chemistry between its characters, whether it’s Moody and Anna’s skewed father-daughter dynamic or the sultry, “Out of Sight”-like flirtation that she and Rembrandt (Keaton) cook up en route to their final standoff.
Which brings us back to the idea of retirement. Could Anna and Rembrandt realistically wind up together? Or is theirs a life meant for reading poetry and polishing their weapons in solitude? In a way, it’s a shame that “The Protégé” serves as a “one last job” movie for most of its ensemble, since the title lends itself to a franchise starter more than a stand-alone. With any luck, it will inspire others to recognize Q’s action star abilities.