A film review by Craig J. Koban September 13, 2021


2021, R, 106 mins.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate  /  Miku Martineau as Ani  /  Woody Harrelson as Varrick  /  Tadanobu Asano as Renji  /  Michiel Huisman as Stephen  /  Jun Kunimura as Kjima  /  Miyavi as Jojima  /  Amelia Crouch as Teen Kate  /  Ava Caryofyllis as Child Kate

Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan  /  Written by Umair Aleem


One of the curses of being a film critic and seeing as much of what comes out as possible is that I'm exposed to the same material being dragged out and recycled over and over...and over again.  

Netflix's latest action thriller KATE feels likes its ripping off the streaming giant's own properties at times.  

Here's a film about a lethal, steely eyed, and ravenously driven assassin for hire with a traumatized backstory that ends up on the run and also has to care for an innocent young girl while fending off the constant barrage of male thugs that attack them both and wish them dead.  If you - like me - saw Netflix's GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE from just several weeks ago and were left with overwhelming sensations of copycat syndrome...well...you're not alone.  KATE's narrative has been slavishly - some could aptly say plagiaristically - appropriated from the GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE playbook, and countless other assassin thriller cheat sheets as well.  Aside from the wonderful Mary Elizabeth Winstead commendably leading the charge and some viscerally potent action sequences, too much of KATE is a paint-by-numbers affair. 

I did like the setting here, although it leads to some unintentionally bad side effects (more on that in a bit).  KATE takes place in a neon-lit Toyko and features Winstead as the titular anti-hero, a cold blooded and stone cold sniper that works with her handler in Varrick (and terribly underutilized Woody Harrelson), who has been her surrogate father figure since she was a girl (granted, this paternal figure taught this girl multiple ways to kill people at an unhealthily early age).  While in Osaka, Kate and Varrick decide to take a job to terminate a high profile, yet mysterious client, but they later find out while on the job that the real prey is the target's daughter, Ani (Miku Martineau), and in pure movie assassin fashion (no kids, no deal), Kate refuses the assignment at the last minute and bails for Tokyo. 

Several months fly by and while there she has a hook up with a stranger at a local bar (Michael Huisman), but after a night of sextivities with the man she becomes dizzy, ill, and passes out, waking up in a hospital and learning that she's been poisoned with Acute Radiation Syndrome, which will turn her insides into liquid goo in 24 hours and kill her in the process.  Arming herself with multiple adrenaline shots, Kate desperately flees from the hospital to seek out the man that's the most likely suspect, Kijima (Jun Kunimura), a yakuza boss with powerful allies and resources.  In the process of doing this, Kate ends up inadvertently teaming up with Ani herself, and the more time she spends with her the more she realizes that Ani's own flesh and blood want her dead, which puts Kate into maternal protective mode.  Let's not forget, though, that she's a ticking time bomb that's about to go off in a day, and with the threat of dying alarming soon on the horizon, Kate has to go on the crisis/take charge offensive and fast.



The time sensitive aspect of Kate's DOA-inspired mission here is decent enough, and the death sentence that awaits Kate gives the film a sense of forward momentum and chilling suspense (however, it doesn't speak well towards the protagonist's smarts at all, considering that she's a thoroughly trained assassin and should not let her guard down and engage in any hanky panky with a complete stranger).  The only thing that keeps Kate going throughout this hellish ordeal is frequent self-administered adrenaline shots by the hour, which has predictable effects on her already frazzled state of mind.  Nevertheless, the poison is destroying her from the inside out, leading to some nasty repercussions, but she soldiers on and decimates her way through legions of yakuza scum.  Director Cedric Nicholas-Troyan (a former Oscar nominated visual effects man for SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN before directing its sequel in THE HUNTSMAN: WINTER'S WAR) makes the Tokyo settings come alive with some commendably eye-popping imagery.  KATE is an unendingly good looking movie. 

Troyan also conjures up some truly inspired action beats to demonstrate just how dexterous (and, at times, maniacal) Kate is when it comes to taking out the worst elements of the underworld.  There's a wondrously realized brawl sequence that features Kate crashing a yakuza dinner (she kicks, punches, stabs, and shots first and asks questions a very distant second).  BIRDS OF PREY stunt coordinator Jonathan Eusebio previously worked on that film with Winstead (remember her inspired turn as The Huntress?), and their solid work beforehand has obviously and positively segued into KATE.  This film wholeheartedly delivers on the type of bone mashing and brain spraying mayhem that most genre fans have come to expect, and points need to allocated to Troyan and his team for making all of the bombastic scenes of human misery and pain have a reasonably flow and coherence to them.  Compared to the recently released Netflix thriller SWEET GIRL (which had action beats that were cut and choreographed so spastically to the point of eye strain), KATE is like an aesthetic breath of fresh air in the right direction. 

And, yes, I have to talk about Winstead for a minute as well.  As she demonstrated in the aforementioned DCEU entry, she's completely credible here as a take no prisoners action hero, and as an engine to deliver insta-death to her assailants Kate is a wickedly intimidating force (even though she wears cute smiley face T-shirts and has a penchant for high sugar drinks).  It's a very authoritative turn from Winstead and she acclimates herself to the madness of KATE quite well, but I only wished, though, that her character was afforded more layers of depth and nuance.  Both Kate and her young kidnapped protégée in Ani never come off as interesting characters on the page, and the narrative journey that they both go on - replete with lots of barriers both mental and physical being thrown at them - feels pretty mechanical and artificial.  Ani is also simply not likeable in KATE, which is another issue.  Yes, Ani and Kate obligatorily bond over similar past traumas, but Ani comes across as so annoying in the film that I simply didn't care if she made it through the picture at all.  The final act of KATE only exacerbates everything, when certain characters that figured in prominently in the beginning disappear and then conveniently reappear, only to now radically change alliances and further threaten Kate's well-being.  It's all just too much.  Less would have been more in the climax. 

And for as much as I appreciated the Asian settings in KATE, there's simply no denying that the overall hero's journey here unflatteringly wallows in a lot of white savoir elements, which taints the entire affair.  Here's a film with an Asian teenager that needs to be befriended and protected by a white outsider, with the latter mowing her way through countless people of color to make it through to the end in one piece.  There's an off-putting level of painting the Japanese antagonists here in very broad, stereotypical strokes (the yakuza here are sword and machine gun carrying businessmen that are lustfully mad...and that's about it).  Alas, subtlety is not one of KATE's strong suits, not to mention that, when all is said and done, the film is just too awash in overused and tired assassin film clichés to truly stand out as a genre defying original.  I'm getting tired of tales of family-less loner killers that have to deal with their pasts by serving as protectors of kids that are icy reflections of themselves.  There's got to be more to this genre, but films like KATE aren't interesting in exploring it in more satisfying complexity.  I've been saying this so much in my reviews as of late that I'm sounding like a broken record, but I will again: The film world needs more female driven action films, because the genre has been a sausage fest for too long.  But simply inserting a woman into a routinely derivative  action film that's usually dominated by men and decidedly very low on innovation isn't actually progress.  Winstead - and audiences - deserves better than what's unleashed in KATE. 

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