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The lure of the assassin protagonist isn’t exactly complicated. “Hired killer” is a kind of job that feels like it exists on the fringes of reality while still being very real, and it comes pre-packaged with deep conflicts of both the internal and external variety. It’s often exotic work, taking characters off to far-flung places, and only deals in extreme stakes and consequences. It’s fish-in-a-barrel storytelling – which is why it is material that regularly generates exceedingly generic results.
We’ve already seen a perfect example of this from Netflix in 2021, as it was this past July that the service debuted Navot Papushado's Gunpowder Milkshake, and now, a few months later, the streamer is set to do it again with the release of Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s Kate. Like the Karen Gillan action flick, the new movie is also a film beset and undercut by all manners of clichés, resulting in a predictable and underwhelming story – but the results are at least somewhat different. The key deviation is that the latter accentuates skill while the former is just all about hollow style, and that, at the very least, makes it more engaging and satisfying.
Set in Tokyo, Japan, the eponymous Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a young woman who has spent almost her entire life training to be and operating as a freelance assassin. Her father figure/handler Varrick (Woody Harrelson) manages the targets she executes, and she employs her honed physical abilities and firearms expertise to get the job done.
As always in these kinds of movies, the dominos of trouble begin to fall when a hit goes wrong. Kate is hired to kill a key yakuza figure, and while she successfully completes the work, she is haunted by the fact that the man is killed right in front of his young daughter Ani (Miku Martineau). Ten months of soul searching later, she decides that she is ready for retirement – but Varrick convinces her to do one last hit.
Naturally, said hit winds up ruining her perfect record, as the target gets away without taking a fatal bullet, but that’s the least of Kate’s worries. The reason she misses is because she begins to experience side effects from being given a lethal dose of poison that has given her acute radiation sickness. Her death is guaranteed, as there is no antidote available, but with one day left to live she decides to spend her remaining hours hunting down those responsible and taking them with her to the grave.
The ultimate reason to watch Kate is for a high dose of Mary Elizabeth Winstead excellence.
If one is on the fence about whether or not to check out Kate, the tiebreaker for a decision in favor is the performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. From The Thing, to Smashed, to 10 Cloverfield Lane, Winstead has consistently proven in the last decade that she is one of the most underutilized leading actresses currently working, and puts in a great turn in her debut as a front-and-center action star (not counting her role as part of the titular ensemble in Birds Of Prey). It’s not emotionally the most complex part she has taken on, but she is everything that it requires – with mostly cold detachment and professionalism smothering a spark of vulnerability that can’t help but shine through. It’s not an easy line to walk, as that kind of character can easily take a deep dive into “unlikable,” but Winstead has the charisma necessary to pull it off.
Kate is very much up to the action standard we’ve come to expect from 87North Productions.
Not only is it wonderful to see Mary Elizabeth Winstead back in a leading role, but it’s exceptionally exciting to see her collaborating with 87North Productions. With a filmography that includes the John Wick movies, Atomic Blonde, and Nobody, the company’s credentials when it comes to action excellence is well established, and it’s amazing to see their newest star operate in their world. The aforementioned DC Comics movie already proved to audiences that Winstead can kick a whole lot of ass on screen (not to mention the skills she demonstrates in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), but here she doesn’t have to share the spotlight, and the production delivers a number of exceptional sequences that allow her to shine.
Kate snipes, she shoots, she slashes, she chases, she brawls, and everything in between, and each sequence where she does allows for its own unique flavor and angles. Cedric Nicolas-Troyan shoots it all with sharp clarity that accentuates the wonderful details in the choreography, even in low lighting, and it strikes that all important tone between brutal and fun: you feel the weight and impact of each hit, and can’t help but marvel at the skill with which it’s all performed.
Even if you’ve only seen three assassin-centric movies before, you can predict pretty much each step of the plot in Kate.
What hampers Kate is that it feels like the inverse amount of energy that went into crafting the action of the movie went into the design of the script. As much as you might be hoping that the film will upend long-established expectations from the subgenre, Umair Aleem's screenplay instead falls into every trope pitfall you can think of, and you can’t help but groan every single time one of your early predictions for developments in the plot comes to fruition. The story tracks, it’s well paced, and it does make some valid attempts at commentary regarding exploitation and colonization, but it’s mostly just a collection of basic plot points wrapped around excellent set pieces.
Kate isn’t the first movie of its kind that we’ve seen this year, and in the next 12 months it’s wholly possible that we will see one or two whacks at the exact same concept. In that sense the film is mostly unimpressive, but it definitely does find ways to stand out. At the very least it will hopefully get more people to recognize the range of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and she’ll continue to get even bigger and better projects in the years to come.