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Review (8/10)
(By Justin Deimen)

Despite the film's obvious allusions to the Infernal Affairs trilogy, Protege does stand on its own merit for the most part. The blurred lines of good and bad are still fuzzy and Andy Lau is still the charming rogue. But even with an overwrought and overstated script, Protege has its fair share of grandstanding that still ends up being fun and I dare say, quite astute. There's no ambiguity surrounding the film's overarching message. It does not take both sides eventually, something that plagues many crime dramas when they succumb to wanton idolisation of crime syndicates and drug cartels. If writer-director, Derek Yee's sleeve is read correctly, his stance is simple and non-negotiable drug trafficking is evil.

As one of Asia's most bankable leads, Andy Lau adds another notch to his mantle following Battle of Wits. A strong performance as an aging drug lord in Protege follows his turn as a Mozi warrior. Despite being a starring vehicle for young gun Daniel Wu, Andy Lau's presence is a prime factor in the duo's key scenes together as teacher and Protege. The narrative is uncomplicated (but proceeds with an in media res beginning), as it introduces to us a victim of the heroin (the drug of choice in this film) industry, Jane (Zhang Jing Chu) who feeds into the vein of apparent determinism regarding the rampant use of drugs amongst the poverty stricken, perpetuating a cycle that is as senseless as it is damning. Indeed, Protege tentatively inquires early on if the slight distraction of drug use is worse than the emptiness and constant temptations felt by those living in the grimy shadows of society's margins.

Further amplifying the resemblance to Infernal Affairs, Wu plays an undercover agent, Nick who's 8 years deep into his role as a high-ranking member of one of Hong Kong's top drug cartels and next in line to take over from the ill Kwan (Lau). Expectedly, this quandary is one Nick can't seem to get out off considering the relationships he has built and the uncertainty that awaits him after his sojourn with the evident enemy. In truth, Nick's instrumental in the organisation's continued reign, which just further adds on to the guilt he's not ready to face. Thrown in the mix is Nick's burgeoning relationship with Jane that through a warped sense of morality begins to change their attitudes towards the narcotics their lives have become entrenched in. And despite the strong ancillary cast that also includes Louis Koo and Anita Yuen, they feature in inflated means-to-an-end cameos that are satisfactory but never really make an impression. But the core cast of Lau, Wu and Zhang hold strong throughout the film.

The film takes noticeable pride in elucidating the progression of drug trafficking from its very bottom rung to the middlemen and finally to the benefits of the higher echelons. There are trips through Thailand's poppy fields all the way to the network of mules and the distribution network it utilises to ensnare potential addicts. Therein lies a relatively comprehensive expos on drug production that does not feel antiseptic and alienating. There's no denying that Yee's research does play a strong and influential part in the film's overall success.


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