The Movies Tell Us: Don’t Trust Your Protege

By  · Published on August 26th, 2014

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Being a mentor is tough. You’re putting time into showing a kid the ropes, and what do you get out of it? According to the movies, maybe death. Or at least some non-lethal backstabbing will come about if you’re not lucky. It’s a wonder any of us bother to recruit interns, employees, apprentices, proteges and sidekicks when we know from watching a lot of movies that it’s not a good idea. We’re much better off just doing whatever work they’d have helped with alone and living a longer and more fruitful life. Never mind if we deserve the comeuppance. None of us believe we’re the bad guys, especially when we thought we were actually out for our disciple’s best interest.

In the new movie The November Man, it’s Pierce Brosnan who winds up targeted by his former pupil, played by Luke Bracey. The two are spies, Brosnan now retired – until he’s pulled back in for “one more mission,” of course. And in this mission he’s up against a younger fellow to whom he taught everything he knows. Actually, he probably kept at least one thing close to his chest. That’s something else we learn from the movies, that it’s good to hold back from teaching your protege everything, because you’ll need a secret weapon in case he or she comes back to bite the hand that fed.

Additionally, the movies teach us seemingly everything we need to know to avoid being betrayed. But if they’re smart, they’re also keeping one thing from us. So we can only trust them as far as we’d trust our own underlings. The following steps to staying alive are therefore to be taken with a grain of salt, unlike most things we learn from fictional entertainment.

Don’t Be a Horrible Boss

This should be a given, but you’re surely aware from experience that there are more awful bosses than great ones, so it’s clearly not an understood rule for a lot of human beings. Also obvious is that the movie titled Horrible Bosses is a good example of where this can go wrong, i.e. your disgruntled employee could personally murder you or, more likely, have you killed. One of the bad bosses in that comedy is played by Kevin Spacey, who many years earlier played a sadistic movie executive in Swimming With Sharks, in which he’s kidnapped and tortured by his assistant (Frank Whaley) for being such a prick. Something similar happens in Christmas Vacation, though it’s Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) who out of loyalty to his brother-in-law kidnaps the horrible boss (Brian Doyle Murray). And in Trading Places, the Dukes (Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy) get what they deserve after screwing with their old and new disciple (Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy). In more fantastical plots, there are the minions who turn against their master, as we see in The Lion King, Moonraker and Return of the Jedi.

Don’t Be a Good Boss Who Might Seem Unreasonable to Crazy Employees

This is a tricky rule, because you should be able to be a good boss and not have any trouble. But basically not being a horrible boss isn’t enough. You probably just shouldn’t be a boss at all, because there’s a likelihood that someone underneath you will have some issue with your managing techniques and reasoning. Especially if you have a ton of employees. One of them may be obsessed with you, like Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey) is with Bruce Wayne (Val Kilmer) in Batman Forever. He becomes a supervillain, The Riddler, and later tries to get his revenge on his boss, who also happens to be the Caped Crusader, because his brilliant invention is rejected on moral grounds. Beforehand he even kills his direct supervisor (who fit more in the horrible boss category). Before you knock me for that not being a proper protege, let’s also go with Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) in Kill Bill Volume 2, since she kills her martial arts master, Pai Mei (Gordon Liu), for ripping out her eyeball. And for her, that was not an unreasonable action. The PG-rated version of that is in Kung Fu Panda, with Tai Lung (voiced by Ian McShane) turning evil and swearing revenge after his master and father figure Shei (Dustin Hoffman) denies him limitless power, because he’s not the chosen one.

Don’t Let Your Protege Be Taken In By Your Rival

Temptation is a strong thing, whether it’s to the Dark Side of the Force or a greater promise of becoming a champion. But even stronger is the will of someone properly taught and respected and reasoned with. In Rocky V, the title character (Sylvester Stallone) should have maintained that he had Tommy’s (Tommy Morrison) best interests in mind, and maybe he wouldn’t have had to fight his own protege in the end. Again, in The Expendables, Stallone lets one of his men go (Dolph Lundgren) and then of course that guy defect to the enemy (the same thing sort of happens in Santa Claus: The Movie). Of course, there are some people who just aren’t reasonable, like Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), who is easily shaped by enemies who want to turn him agains his mentors. First he winds up killing Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and later he turns back around and kills the Emperor. And there are others who are just plain brainwashed, a la Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The other key there is to not simply believe your sidekick is dead just because you saw him fall to great depths from a train.

Don’t Be Into Criminal Stuff

Another easy way to see your assistant fall into the clutches of the enemy is to be into criminal stuff, like cocaine, and let him also be into that stuff, too. Then, what happens is, as we see in True Romance, the underling (Bronson Pinchot) gets into trouble with the cops, he’s convinced to take a deal in order to stab you in the heart and then you end up throwing hot coffee at him and die in a blaze of gunfire that turns your hotel room into a three-way battle between bodyguards, mafia and LAPD. The criminal stuff may also include cons, though the real lesson in that line of work is to never trust another con man (no honor among thieves, duh). I won’t even name titles there, because that lesson tends to be the twist in a movie, even though it should be obvious. But the original and remake of The Mechanic is fitting, with assassins instead of con men.

Don’t Deny Anyone Who Wants to Be Your Protege

Countering the presumption by this point that you should just not have a protege at all, that plan can also backfire. In Pixar’s The Incredibles, Buddy Pine (voiced by Jason Lee) has all the conventions of a disciple who betrays his master, except that he was never actually Mr. Incredible’s (Craig T. Nelson) sidekick. The denial, both for Buddy’s safety and because the hero worked alone, led to the kid’s downfall when he ended up in jail for trying to help on a mission and then subsequently to his creation of an evil alter ego who pretends to be a superhero, Syndrome.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.