Maggie Q plays a mild-mannered bookstore owner who knows the value of a first edition. When she’s not trying to unload a rare book of poems by Edgar Allen Poe, she’s usually dodging bullets, engaging in hand-to-hand combat, demonstrating her proficiency with a weapon, or using a firehose as a lifeline while jumping off a balcony — dressed of course in a sexy sleek jumpsuit. The actress who was trained to be an action star by Jackie Chan shines in the role of skilled contract killer Anna. Directed by Martin Campbell (“Casino Royale”) with Samuel L. Jackson as Anna’s mentor and Michael Keaton as her rival, “The Protégé” doesn’t break new ground but it should satisfy the moviegoer waiting for next year’s release of “John Wick 4”.

Samuel L. Jackson has portrayed several iconic characters over the years, Nick Fury, Mace Windu, Jules Winnfield, yet none of them come to mind as the chameleon-like actor becomes immersed in a new role. Here, he plays an assassin named Moody who rescues Anna as a child during a deadly mission in Vietnam. During the film’s opening scene, he finds her hiding in a closet, the blood of the bad guys she just killed is splattered on her innocent face. Moody would have been her next victim, but the click of the gun she’s pointing at him signifies that she’s all out of bullets. Most of us would see a red flag, Moody sees a sign that reads “Adopt Me”.

Fast forward 30 years, and now Anna has become one of the world’s greatest hired killers. Trained by Moody and well-educated, he sent her to the finest schools, she has evolved into a refined yet deadly lethal weapon. The two have a nurturing father-daughter relationship, he buys her bookstores, and she buys him vintage guitars.

After vowing never to return to her homeland, Anna is forced to return to Vietnam for a mission, although this time it’s personal. Michael Keaton enters the story as Rembrandt, a skilled killer and Anna’s nemesis who proves to be an equal match. There’s playful chemistry between the two characters — both have a dry sense of humor — that works surprisingly well. You never know if they’re going to kill each other or make passionate love. This feels like Campbell injecting some of that 007 charisma into the action-heavy screenplay by Richard Wenk whose known for the Denzel Washington “Equalizer” films.

I’m not going to lie, I had Keaton under the microscope observing his agility to see if he still has what it takes to play Batman in Andy Muschietti’s upcoming “The Flash.” I’m happy to report he passed with flying colors, although I’m not sure how many of the stunts Keaton performed, at least under the film’s facade it comes across as believable. Steven Seagal should consider hiring stuntmen if he’s going to keep making action films.

“The Protégé” is better than it should be thanks to the Q-Jackson-Keaton trifecta. The film’s main villain played by David Rintoul is about as menacing as Emily Blunt. It’s the film’s weakest link but not the actor’s fault. The character is just some old rich white dude that lets Rembrandt do his dirty work, whatever that is. For all purposes, they could have cast beloved actor Jim Broadbent as the diluted baddie but the smart choice would have been to make Keaton the film’s villain. Despite the snafu, it’s still a fun action-packed thriller that you can classify under cinema’s version of comfort food.

(3 stars)

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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