Like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Netflix’s new action thriller Kate is centered around a female assassin living on borrowed time. Also like Kill Bill, it is a hodgepodge of ideas from the genre exercises that came before it. What sets the two films apart is mostly the ambition of scale. Whereas Kill Bill was a self-consciously tongue-in-cheek homage that won over audiences with violence that really earns the modifier “ultra” and a string of ridiculous, over-the-top charaters that would put their grindhouse forebears to shame, Kate is a relatively subdued affair – or as subdued as a movie made up of virtually non-stop fight scenes can be. Structurally, Kate comes closer to a direct-to-video b-movie from the 90s, and while its simplicity helps highlight some of its greatest strengths, it also leads to some of its greatest flaws.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead starts as Kate, the titular super assassin whose latest assignment has brought her to Osaka, where she is tasked with taking out an important member of a local crime syndicate. The job is compromised when the target’s daughter, Ani (Miku Martineau), steps out from the car after her father. And as Kate will soon explain to her friend and Mentor, Varrick (Woody Harrelson), “We have one rule. One simple rule: no kids.” However, rules were made to be broken, and the voice in Kate’s headset instructs her to take the shot anyway. Kate, the consummate professional, goes ahead and pulls the trigger, but doesn’t feel especially good about the decision. She tells Varrick that she wants out, and her next mark will be her last.
That night, she breaks what should probably the second rule of the assassin’s guild and shares a few drinks and a night of passion with a local hottie who she meets in the hotel bar. Surprising no one but Kate herself, the hottie in question turns out to be a plant sent to poison her with a rare and deadly radioactive substance that leaves her with only twenty-four hours to live. Armed with a handful of injectable stimulants, she heads out to wade through the seedy underworld of Japan to locate and execute whoever was behind the plot on her life before it is successful. In the process, she kindaps Ani, inadvertently turning the girl into a target of the same syndicate that her father belonged to.
The easiest criticism of Kate is that the plot is an overly formulaic rehashing of other movies, chock full of stock characters and genre tropes. There’s the surragte father figure/mentor and the child who “unexpectedly” befriends the assassin. There are shots of wounds being patched up in public bathroom mirrors, a convenient twenty-four hour timeline framing the story, even a pair of cheap sunglasses that come to stand in for badassness. To some degree, all this can be forgiven, since plot isn’t usually the strongest point of an action movie. If you’re walking into a revenge-fueled murder frenzy expecting a nuanced story, you’ll usually find yourself as disappointed as you would if you’d walked into a Woody Allen film expecting the nebbish, sexually frustrated young writer character to spontaneously transform into Optimus Prime. The success or failure of an action movie is usually found less in the originality and more in the execution – or executions.
By this measure, Kate manages to succeed on several levels. The cast is consistently excellent, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead serving as a quietly intimidating badass who commands respect and attention every time she steps on screen. Miku Martineau switches seamlessly from screaming kidnap victim to bubbly overconfident teenager with ease and aplomb. Even Woody Harrelson – who plays such a completely familiar character as to almost invite phoning in – delivers one of his best performances in recent memory. And the real central pillar of any action movie – the action – is with very few exceptions incredible. A propulsive soundtrack of Japanese rock drives the film from shootout to neck stabbing to significantly more neck stabbing with a rhythmic fluidity, and while this kind of wall-to-wall action could easily grow tiresome, the diverse locations combine with Kate’s progressively deteriorating state to keep the bloody brawls feeling as fresh as they are brutal.
Verdict: 3 out of 5 Stars
Kate won’t be winning any awards for originality, but as an action-driven revenge fantasy helmed by a strong female lead dripping with blood and attitude, it’s a lot of fun. With terrific action, terrific performances, and terrific visuals, the film is well worth a watch for fans of the genre. For anyone who isn’t so easily won over by a good neck stabbing – and seriously, this movie has so many neck stabbings that it’s tempting to glorify them as a motif – there probably isn’t enough on offer here to really rope you in. While the actors all shine, they do so in the service of a pretty lackluster story that exists purely in service of the action, rather than the other way around.