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'The Protégé' review: Assassin tale only comes alive with Michael Keaton

Maggie Q plays an assassin for hire in

Maggie Q plays an assassin for hire in "The Protégé." Credit: Lionsgate/Simon Varsano

THE PROTÉGÉ (1 ½ stars)

PLOT A female assassin plots revenge against the men who killed her mentor.

CAST Maggie Q, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson

RATED R (extreme violence)

LENGTH 1:49

WHERE Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE Part bloodbath, part sex-comedy, totally botched.

Actress Maggie Q is no stranger to the action genre, with credits that include "Mission: Impossible III" and television’s "Nikita." The same goes for Martin Campbell, a director who boosted the James Bond series first with Pierce Brosnan in "GoldenEye" and again with Daniel Craig in "Casino Royale." Their new movie, "The Protégé," casts Q in the kind of role usually reserved for men: A highly trained assassin out for revenge.

It all goes passably well — at first — and then Michael Keaton saunters on screen and utterly steals the movie.

Then again, there isn’t much movie here to steal. An uneven mix of cartoonish gunplay, alarming brutality and meet-cute romance, "The Protégé" either doesn’t know what it’s trying to accomplish or, more likely, can’t make up its mind. Keaton, who plays a wily counter-assassin, is simply being Keaton (that knowing smirk, those wolfish eyebrows) and this flailing seems drawn to his confidence and natural charm.

The story plays on Q’s Vietnamese heritage by opening in Da Nang 30 years ago. An American commando type named Moody (Samuel L. Jackson, fun as always) discovers a little girl, Anna, hiding in a closet with a gun; it appears she single-handedly killed a whole gang of lowlifes. Impressed, Moody takes her under his wing. Now Anna runs a rare-book shop in London, though her real money comes from partnering with Moody to kill bad guys. Eh, it’s a living.

But when the bad guys come for Moody, Anna is determined to track them down. A trail of clues — something about a vanished boy named Lucas Hayes — leads to a the usual series of lowlifes for hire, billionaire sleazeballs and so on. Q, with her slender build and fine features, isn’t always believable as she dispatches these guys two, three or even five at a time; she’s better in scenes where Anna has to play smart, keep cool and wait for her moment.

The screenplay by Richard Wenk ("The Equalizer") doggedly goes nowhere, but two things help distract us: Several solid action sequences and Keaton. As the improbably named Michael Rembrandt, Keaton convinces us that this suave killer is falling for his target; what’s more, he convinces us that Anna, roughly half his age, would fall for him. Alas, this is also where the film really unravels: Are we in a bloody shocker like "A History of Violence" or a har-de-har comedy like "Mr. and Mrs. Smith?"

"The Protégé" saves its worst narrative blunder for last: A closing flashback that shows us exactly what Anna experienced as a little girl. A nightmare of point-blank shootings, attempted rape and a decapitated head shoved into the camera lens, it’s a pointless horror show that arrives late and explains nothing. Keaton, come back!

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