Michael Keaton and Maggie Q do dangerous dance in hollow thriller

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Michael Keaton celebrates his 70th birthday with a pair of new releases, as disparate as those on his diverse CV. The prolific Batman, Bird man, and beetle juice the star could possibly enter the 2022 awards race this Labor Day weekend when Sara Colangelo’s Sundance title Value (which was created at latest The January festival, before we know theaters would close for over a year) is coming to Netflix. But before it gets there, first comes The protected, for which you don’t need to save space on your Oscar ballot.

Not that the film aspires to be trophy bait; Martin Campbell’s killer cat and mouse thriller is self-aware enough as a kinetic genre entry. As it spills more blood and a more convoluted backstory, however, it reveals an empty center.

Maggie Q plays Anna, a highly skilled slayer with a musician’s ear for handgun clicks and a loving passion for classical poetry and beautiful books, so we know she has a soul. She embarked on her particular job (murder, no rare books, although she does both) as a child when she was taken in as a little girl by the powerful assassin Moody (Samuel L. Jackson) , who found her hidden among the victims of a massacre in Vietnam. The killer duo make a great team – until a new contract that would bring Moody and Anna back to Vietnam throws them on their backs a target that only Anna can survive.

So begins his strange journey, half fulfilling the contract and half taking revenge and / or answer for Moody’s death. We don’t really know, and we don’t really care, as the point is to watch Anna repeatedly outsmart and sometimes beat the army of bad guys who are chasing her. Some of Q’s action sequences – she’s done most of her own stunts, despite having recent spine surgery – are a real thrill, but they lose their power as the film gets bogged down in a murky plot.

Simon Varsano / Lionsgate Michael Keaton in “The Protected”.

Much of that plot comes from Anna’s interactions with Rembrandt (Keaton), a shady character who is flirting with her for the first time in her bookstore – which seems a bit wrong, considering the age gap of 28 years of the stars – before revealing his more complicated role in the biggest conspiracy. The actor brings an appealing sense of mischief and an air of worldliness to the play, which was written without much sense of anything or air of anything else. Much like Keaton elevates the bland material, however, the mismatched pair’s flirtation (which not only continues but actually escalates a lot) is so shocking that it distracts attention from the murderous drama they talk about through their innuendos.

Richard Wenk’s mostly uninspiring script doesn’t attempt anything too inventive and includes unfortunate things like “He’s a villain who did very bad things.” But the script basically handles what it needs, which is guiding Q through a series of brutal fight scenes and giving Jackson the chance to yell, “No more fucking birthdays! Take birthdays and fools. them in the ass! ” What more could you ask for in a late summer thriller? Rating: C +

The protected hits theaters August 20.

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