By Lynn Venhaus
Despite a few fine actors who wring out decent performances, “The Protégé” is a convoluted and ridiculous late-summer action-thriller throwaway with too many characters, loose ends and nine lives.

 Rescued as a child by Moody (Samuel L. Jackson), Anna (Maggie Q) has become an assassin too – hence, the title (Duh). When he’s brutally murdered – not a spoiler – she seeks vengeance in a fact-finding mission on why.  Caught up in a complicated web of intrigue, she plays cat-and-mouse with a hired gun on the other side, Rembrandt (Michael Keaton).

Slickly directed by Martin Campbell, who is more focused on style than substance, the movie combines quicksilver martial arts combat with blazing bullets ripping people open in high-powered gunfights. Let’s mow people down first, get a few answers later.

The testosterone-heavy script by Richard Wenk, who wrote both “The Equalizer” reboot in 2014 and its sequel four years later, shrouds all characters in mystery.

Jackson plays cranky Moody, a crackerjack hired killer who has mentored a young Vietnamese orphan girl, Anna, that he saved in Da Nang. On the plus side, Wenk did write some sage advice from Moody, delivered as only Jackson can.

The beautiful lethal weapon Anna is now an expertly trained cold-blooded contract killer whose side hustle is a rare book shop in London. Action star Maggie Q (TV’s “Nikita”) is a cool and composed heroine, always one step ahead of the enemy.

When the going gets rough, Anna is forced to return to her homeland, a place she never wanted to see again, and with the help of grizzled biker Billy Boy (Robert Patrick), she tracks down powerful rich old white men pulling the strings. The who, what, why remain fuzzy — just minor details as long as they are in fancy houses in plush locales being attended to by a gaggle of generic yes men acting tough.

Wenk wants us to believe Anna has met her equal in Rembrandt, played with a wink by the unlikely Keaton, cast against type. Not exactly in his wheelhouse, but then again, also not disappointing — even though it’s a strikingly odd couple.

Keaton manages to deliver some quippy wordplay that doubles as foreplay when he and Anna meet oh-so conveniently at several spots. There is a magnetic vibe – but we’ve got gunplay to shoot that all to hell.

Follow the blood.

She’s silky, he’s smooth – and for an old white guy, he can bust a move. Well, at least his stunt double can. The Oscar-nominated actor would look more at home as an accountant.

Campbell’s coasting on his action blockbuster reputation here. After all, he introduced Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in “Goldeneye” and Daniel Craig as 007 in “Casino Royale” – but also directed the epic fail “Green Lantern.”

Nevertheless, he can deftly stage an action sequence and come up with interesting demises for the bad guys. Just kinda yucky to watch.

Without the appealing trio of Jackson, Keaton and Q, “The Protégé” would be indistinguishable from a long line of cinematic shoot-‘em-ups.

Flitting between Vietnam, Romania and England in the first 10 minutes does no one any favors, just makes the scorecard longer when you’re trying to connect the dots.

As unsentimental as this film is about running away from childhood trauma, there is a heavy-handed scene involving a gruesome beheading and extended mass bloodshed that’s pointless. We should have been spared.

Trying to lighten the mood, the filmmakers add snippets of pop songs that intrude at inane times. Note to them: No need to mimic Quentin Tarantino because you can’t compare, so stop trying so hard.

The more the film unravels, the more absurd it becomes. While watching the top-shelf three is pleasurable, one hopes they could repeat the magic another time with a better script and a less-busy movie.

“The Protege” is a 2021 crime-thriller directed by Martin Campbell and starring Maggie Q, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton and Robert Patrick.  Rated: R for strong and bloody violence, language, some sexual references and brief nudity, its run time is 1 hour, 49 minutes. It opened in theaters Aug. 20. Lynn’s Grade: C-