On paper, “Kate” is a film with all the makings of something completely and utterly unremarkable. The plot is a mixture of all the classic “assassin seeking revenge” tropes audiences have seen for decades. The writing, for the most part, is serviceable. Outside of a couple of big names, the cast is largely compiled with actors that most audiences won’t be familiar with. And the whole thing is brought together by the filmmaker that previously directed “The Hunstman: Winter’s War.” But through some strange alchemy, all of these parts come together in “Kate” to make a film that works better than it has any right to, thanks in no small part to its charismatic leads, a heaping helping of style, and a story that is effective, surprisingly emotional and led by sober feelings of remorse and atonement.
As the title implies, “Kate” is a film about a woman named, well, Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). After being orphaned at a young age, Kate is taken in by a mysterious man, Varrick (Woody Harrelson), who teaches the child how to be a ruthless and efficient killer. Years later, Kate is a cold-hearted assassin on a seemingly routine mission that goes awry when she is poisoned and finds herself with only 24 hours to live and a desire to murder those responsible. And would you guess this was going to be her final mission before going straight? What bad luck!
Again, it has to be said, “Kate” isn’t going to revolutionize the action-thriller genre. This is a revenge film that checks all those post-“John Wick” boxes. But hidden within its Action Film 101 exterior is a story that actually has something to say, following a woman struggling to find her place in the world after living most of her life at the behest of older, powerful men.
As a character, Kate is a bit of a blank slate, without much personality and charm. However, when you realize that she was never given a chance to live as a real human being, with honest, sincere relationships and feelings, and is constantly being told what to do by men that don’t really care what happens to her, though they do love to gaslight her, the fact that this assassin isn’t spewing Marvel-style quips makes sense. And Winstead is the perfect choice to bring this all to life through a dry, somewhat solemn performance with an underlying feeling of regret, guilt, and self-awareness (dare one say the film even emits a feeling of soulfulness at times thanks to M.E.W.). Kate knows that her life was filled with shitty circumstances, partially constructed by people without her best interest at heart. And it’s only when she has mere hours to live where she can come to terms with that and go out with a bang.
Well, not just a bang. Lots and lots of bangs. “Kate” features plenty of action, brought to you by the glorious folks at 87 North—the very same group that gives “John Wick” all of its beautiful fight choreography and panache. There are car chases, gunfights, and some high-level hand-to-hand combat. If you’ve seen any of the ‘Wick’ films, you know what you’re in for, and it’s still fun as hell to watch. And while Winstead is far from the cookie-cutter action badass type in most of her previous roles, she proves to be perfectly capable of rising to the challenge, never once faltering when required to do so much extreme action.
Thankfully, “Kate” also has Cedric Nicolas-Troyan on board to helm the feature. Yes, he’s the same filmmaker that debuted with “The Huntsman: Winter’s War,” a film that was far from a critical and financial hit when it was released in 2016. But with his new film, Nicolas-Troyan redeems himself, infusing some much-needed style into the thriller. For a film that takes place only at night, the film never feels static or visually boring. Setting the film in Tokyo and filling the frame with bright, vibrant colors and unique sets, “Kate” feels electric. Perhaps there are moments where Nicolas-Troyan could have turned the neon dial down to an 8 instead of a 10—there are moments that recall the wild, frenetic look of the Neveldine and Taylor “Crank” franchise—but credit should be given for a filmmaker unwilling to use nighttime as a crutch and hide action in poorly-lit locales.
Even with Winstead carrying the film in front of the camera and Nicolas-Troyan giving it flair as a filmmaker, the MVP of “Kate” has to be newcomer Miku Martineau, as Ani. Halfway through the film, Kate crosses paths with a young Japanese girl, Ani, that may or may not have ties back to a previous mission that haunts the assassin. Ani allows the audience to have a surrogate on screen, saying the things that everyone thinks as they watch Kate mow down hordes of gangsters. Martineau brings so much enthusiasm and charm to her role, excitedly delivering lines like, “You’re a badass killer motherfucker” and “You’re so cool, but also a Terminator bitch!” Her youthful, exuberant energy really is a breath of fresh air in a film filled with cast members prone to delivering stern glares and grimaces. And the way Ani shares Kate’s struggle with discovering her own autonomy in a world run by men brings a kinship to their relationship that is often missing in this type of film.
For those just looking for bones breaking, faces getting stabbed, assassins delivering perfect headshots, “Kate” more than delivers. This film is a solid, fun action-thriller in a world filled with subpar ‘Wick’-ian clones. “Kate” knows what it is, never overstays its welcome, and is bound to surprise audiences who will discover an emotional core that drives the fast-paced, slightly over-the-top action. [B]
“Kate” is available now on Netflix.