THE PROTEGE (Directed by Martin Campbell, 109 minutes, USA, 2021)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC The Protégé is an unconventional actioner starring Maggie Q as Anna, an assassin on a mission to avenge her fallen mentor and father figure Moody (Samuel L. Jackson). Moody’s taken out while digging too deep into the pair’s latest gig, which would’ve sent them to Vietnam, where the assassin found Anna – who managed to kill his targets before he had a chance. It’s this humanizing moment when the killer saves the life of the young girl, by taking her in and smuggling her out of Vietnam, that gives the film a different vibe than the more archetypical entries in this genre. Pair this with Michael Keaton, who plays a cultured upper management assassin, who works for the parties responsible for Moody’s death, and you have a fun dynamic that puts some dimension into a story that even manages to bake some genuine twists into the question of why Moody was killed. I personally found it a solid actioner that avoids the more exploitative trappings, cartoonish violence and nudity, in favor of character development and story.
With this in mind, I sat down earlier this week (after showing proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test) to chat in person, with the star of the film, Maggie Q. After starting her career as a model, Maggie, who was an American working in Hong Kong, was recruited into the HK film industry in the early aughts and started her film career in pulpy action fodder such as like Gen-Y Cops and Naked Weapon, eventually making the jump to big budget American action spectacles such as Mission: Impossible III, Live Free or Die Hard and most Recently the Divergent series. The Protégé is sort of the culmination of her action work, putting her front and center in a starring vehicle that feels tailor made for her, even leaving the door open for a sequel or two. Being a fan of Hong Kong cinema and fight films in general, I had a blast chatting with Maggie who discusses not only her career’s unlikely beginnings, but the trajectory of the action genre which has been embracing these recent female led action properties.
PHAWKER: So you had an interesting trajectory as an actress. You started out as a model, then you were kind of sucked into the Hong Kong film industry and you were “trained as an action star”. You say that a lot and I’ve always been fascinated by it, because I’m a fan of Hong Kong cinema and you were like even mentored a bit by Jackie Chan. Would you elaborate on that? Like how you went from modeling to kicking ass and taking names?
MAGGIE Q: I have no idea. I was working in Hong Kong. I was not in film and Jackie (Chan) had a management company at the time and they sort of came looking for me and said, “hey, listen, we want to put you in films.” I didn’t know why, I didn’t know why they were looking for me. I wasn’t an actor. I had no clue what the deal was in terms of why me? So anyway, they came to me and said, we want to represent you and I said, no, initially, because I didn’t want to be an actor. I didn’t have any experience. I had nothing to offer. So I don’t know why I would’ve said yes to this big name and his company, if I didn’t feel I had anything to give to them.
So I told them that in six months, if people are still looking for me, we can have another conversation. I guess in six months they were and so we started a relationship and that’s kind of how it all began.
PHAWKER: Was it like a bootcamp or how were you trained for action films?
MAGGIE Q: The issue is in Hong Kong, there’s no time or resources to do, like what Keanu did on The Matrix, like have six months to train. So they sort of just throw you in and you just have to be capable. I think it really was the best school, because you don’t have a choice, but to perform, and to perform at the highest level or you’re out.
PHAWKER: So in The Protégé, I noticed that there’s some parallels between the film character Anna and your actual life. You’re both from Vietnam and are bi-racial. Were you involved in the script writing at all? Was the character tailor made for you or did that come after the fact?
MAGGIE Q: Oh no, I wasn’t involved at all. I mean, we were all involved with our tweaks and sort of our takes on the characters that were already written and how we wanted to make them better, like myself and Michael, and Sam especially. So we sort of worked in that way, but no, it was written. Funnily enough, they had different incarnations of this film years before they tried to make it. It was different actors, different actresses, you know, the whole thing. So it never got made and somehow it nicely dovetailed into what we have today.
PHAWKER: One thing I really liked about the project is it kind of attempts to view Vietnam and the Vietnam War through a different prism, than one we’re more accustomed to. Do you think we’re finally getting to the point where we’re starting to actually kind of come to terms with that and a more realistic view on the country and the war?
MAGGIE Q: Yeah, I mean, I wanted to portray a mixed race person in the film as well as show Vietnam is like one of the leading economies in the world, in a world-class city. Right, and it is. You’ve only really seen those regions in periods that we’re married to in our heads. So, you’re finally not seeing in a war movie for the first time, I would say.
PHAWKER: So one thing I noticed about the choreography of the fight scenes, is you sort of have that super smooth, fluid fighting style reminiscent of your Hong Kong work. Did you have any sort of say in your choreography? There definitely seemed to be some Wushu influence in there.
MAGGIE Q: I just think I am very smooth when I fight.
I’m definitely not a Wushu person. Our choreographers, they were all European, so we didn’t have any really Asian influence in that way, although they are all influenced by martial arts, because obviously. I had a lot of say in my fighting. I mean they choreograph what they have in their mind’s eye and then it comes to me and then I make the tweaks I want to make, and if I don’t have to, fantastic. But a lot of times I do jump in and say, well I’d like it more like this, or more or less like this, and we kind of work together in that respect.
PHAWKER: I liked that the fights felt more grounded. Because when you’re forced to use your body to give you leverage when you’re fighting to give you that edge and weight advantage in taking out bad guys and landing a punch. It’s not like you punch them and they fall down, you actually have to build that momentum to put them down, so it’s more believable when you do.
MAGGIE Q: And this is it. Sometimes when I spy things that aren’t realistic, like I get, very like “guys, we really have to protect these characters by rooting these fights in reality”. Number one, number two, Martin (Campbell – Director) does not like big fantastical action at all. He likes it to be practical and something that could actually happen within the realm of the storytelling. So we were kind of married to that.
PHAWKER: I have to say the chemistry between you and Michael Keaton was great. What was that like working with Keaton and what was it like kicking Batman’s ass?
MAGGIE Q: First of all, one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career was collaborating with Michael, because he is such a collaborator, he’s so generous of spirit, you know, just as a human and as an actor. So, I was able to really dig in. We really were able to dig in together and were constantly calling each other and texting each other about ideas and things that we had. So that was really fun.
Fighting with Batman. That’s so funny, I never thought about that when we were making the film until we were done and people were like, “you realize who you were fighting?” It only came up last week. I couldn’t believe that I actually, I mean, of course I remembered him as Batman because he’s one of my favorites, but I was not thinking. I think maybe you just try to compartmentalize and just do what you have to do in front of you and you don’t think of anything else, or maybe it’ll be overwhelming.
PHAWKER: So that brings me to the fact that these action vehicles always get sequels.
MAGGIE Q: Yeah.
PHAWKER: Who would be your sort of ideal heavy for the next film? Male or female? You know, which DCU or MCU character’s ass would you like to kick next?
MAGGIE Q: Wow. Oh my goodness. Yeah, I guess I, maybe I’d like to fight Wonder Woman.
PHAWKER: Oh, that’d be fun.
MAGGIE Q: That would be good, because as a kid, like I was a big Lynda Carter fan, like that was like my show. I wanted to be her, and I dressed up as her and I pretended I was her. So that would be like a childhood fantasy and then Gal (Gadot), she’s such a great woman and I love her personality. She’s a really, really nice lady. So it would be fun.
PHAWKER: So finally, do you think the action genre has gotten better? Because like now we have Charlize Theron, and she has her own action vehicles and Scarlett Johansson, and she has her action vehicles and now you’re doing The Protégé and we have these women now leading the charge in these more empowering narratives?
MAGGIE Q: I mean, I hope so, because you know, opportunities obviously are few and far between. So I suppose if we get the opportunities and we do it well, it’s going to create more opportunities. So hopefully that is the case.
PHAWKER: I love that while this film definitely trafficks in the tropes of the sexy female assassin sub-genre you manage to imbue her with more of a realism, because she’s more established and she’s not being groomed or like this ingenue. We actually see her go on this journey.
MAGGIE Q: It’s a couple of things. I think it’s casting women of a certain age who have a gravitas and a history that they bring to the screen, which I think is infinitely more interesting. Then casting great actresses like Charlize and Scarlett. These are really talented actresses and you’re putting them in a genre where they’re giving weight to everything else that’s happening and we didn’t do that before, because there was an era where the acting was secondary to what was happening. I think audiences are too sophisticated for that now, to be honest. I think we are moving in a different direction.
Video link: https://youtu.be/yGU8Brj0FxA