What is it about female assassins? “La Femme Nikita,” Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movies, “Red Sparrow,” “Killing Eve”: Kipling’s “The female of the species is deadlier than the male” is their motto. Marvel’s Black Widow character, and now her sister, are somewhere on that sexy-lethal continuum, too.
The cadre has a new member. “The Protégé” stars Maggie Q as Anna, the title character — though shouldn’t it be “Protegée”? — a world-class killer-for-hire who’s following in the vocational footsteps, or fingerprints, or muzzle trajectories of her foster father, Moody. He’s played by Samuel L. Jackson, as if the filmmakers would cast anyone else.
Moody rescued Anna when she was a just-orphaned child, in Da Nang, in 1991. That setting means we get to hear Jackson speak a little Vietnamese. Is there anything the man can’t do? Alas, the subtitles do not include the Oedipal obscenity whose utterance long ago became a Jackson trademark.
Anna’s and Moody’s dispatching of an organized-crime boss in Bucharest, 30 years later, shows how well she’s learned her trade. He’s good, but she’s better, or badder, or both. They’re also, in their gruesomely violent way, righteous. “I sent away so many way prematurely,” an uncharacteristically reflective Moody says to Anna. She corrects him. “We never sent anyone away who didn’t have it coming.” Even more than most movies, “The Protégé” loves having things both ways.
Moody has a special assignment for Anna. It’s not a hit. It’s a tracking down. You will not be surprised to hear that complications ensue. Among them is A Major Switcheroo, preceded by the appearance of Michael Keaton as a man named Michael Rembrandt. He describes himself thusly: “I’m an after-the-facts guy. I make sure there are no loose ends.” Yes, Rembrandt is a kind of artist. Presumably, he got a big kick out of Mr. Wolf when he watched “Pulp Fiction.”
The director, Martin Campbell, knows his way around this sort of thing. He’s done a couple of Bond movies (“GoldenEye” and “Casino Royale”) and a Jackie Chan picture (“The Foreigner”). So does the screenwriter, Richard Wenk: both “Equalizer” movies, an “Expendables,” a Jack Reacher movie. Slick, remorseless murderousness is their stock in trade — that’s what “The Protégé” has to offer. It’s also far nastier than it needs to be, though the filmmakers are so focused on rote proficiency, do they even notice how nasty it is?
This raises an obvious subsidiary question: Why bother to watch? Well, even on automatic pilot, as he is here, Jackson is always good company. (He’s getting a lifetime-achievement Oscar next year, and it’s nice to see the Academy getting something right, for a change.) Maggie Q’s blend of grace and gravity translates into a quiet authority. Keaton completes the trio. He’s quite droll here. No one’s better at playing a low-key wiseass.
The pleasure of such company isn’t enough to compensate for watching a succession of scenes that are like recruitment ads for abattoir work. The most inexcusable involves children witnessing murders, being themselves murdered, and the one surviving child committing murder. Hey, it’s a three-fer. Why people would pay large sums of money to film something like that is a mystery, though maybe not as much as why other people would pay small sums of money to watch it. “We all have scars,” Moody says to Anna. “You stare at them long enough you remember how you got them.” Watch “The Protégé,” and maybe you’ll get some, too.
Directed by Martin Campbell. Written by Richard Wenk. Starring Maggie Q, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson. At Boston theaters and suburbs. R (strong and bloody violence, language, some sexual references and brief nudity)
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.