You’ve seen movies like Kate before.
Netflix’s latest action-thriller, which premieres Friday, uses many of the same tropes that have littered the hitman subgenre for decades, and especially those ones that have become more common in the wake of John Wick’s success.
Present and accounted for is a neon-lit international setting — in this case, Tokyo — and a seemingly indestructible protagonist, hell-bent on revenge. Kate doesn’t offer much besides that in terms of narrative surprises or filmmaking ingenuity, even leaning on the frustratingly cliché “last job gone wrong” set up to serve as its inciting incident.
But what Kate does have going for it is star Mary Elizabeth Winstead, one of the most charismatic and capable actresses of her generation. Unfortunately, Winstead has flown under the radar for most of her career; Kate, which gives the actress 106 minutes in the spotlight, should change that once and for all. And Winstead, to her credit, doesn’t let the opportunity pass her by.
Let’s say you’ve been poisoned and have 24 hours left to live: What do you do with your last day?
Most of us would probably opt to spend it with our families or do one thing we’ve spent years wanting to try. But if you’re Kate, you’re going to spend those precious final hours on a blood-soaked rampage, in search of the person who poisoned you.
Played in the film by a surprisingly ruthless and enraged Winstead, Kate is the last person you can imagine crossing. Armed with a desire for revenge, several doses of heavy painkillers, and a hankering for lemon soda, Kate sets out on a quest across Tokyo in search of the yakuza boss she believes sentenced her to death. It’s a simple premise, opening the door for Kate to follow its titular protagonist through an unending stream of gunfights, chases, and massacres.
The film, directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) from a screenplay by Umair Aleem (Extraction), delivers on that promise, albeit to varying degrees of success. Indeed, while Winstead’s Kate approaches each of the film’s action sequences with equal ferocity, only a few set pieces stand out. That includes a fight at a Japanese restaurant/social club, which sees Kate single-handedly taking down an assortment of yakuza bosses and goons across a series of identical, black-and-white rooms and corridors.
It’s during this extended sequence that Kate is at its most thrilling, visually controlled, and inventive.
From long Steadicam tracking shots that follow Kate as she infiltrates the facility to aerial shots that pivot and whirl in time with Kate’s movements and spins, Nicolas-Troyan employs a number of unexpected camera angles and cutting techniques throughout, investing the scene with an energy and style that the rest of the film largely lacks.
All that said, it’s Winstead’s lead performance that ultimately lifts Kate out of total mediocrity. Coming off her recent, similarly dynamic and vengeful performance as The Huntress in last year’s Birds of Prey, Winstead proves her mettle as a legitimate action star with Kate. She invests in the character so heavily that it becomes impossible to look away from her performance, which becomes more layered and human as Kate’s body is ravaged by the poison slowly killing her.
This character is tired and angry — and for good reason — but Winstead never lets Kate become an emotionless killing machine. Be it through a small, shuddered breath or a perfectly timed scream of rage, the actress ensures that everything Kate does feels emotionally motivated and authentic, even when she’s firing bullets into the hundredth unlucky henchman sent her way.
It’s a muscular and charismatic performance, and undeniably the most interesting thing that Kate has to offer.
Unfortunately, Kate invests far less heavily into the culture and history of its setting than it does the emotions of its killer protagonist. The film uses the city of Tokyo largely for its visual traits and charms, which makes one dignified character’s third-act remarks about Westerners gorging on “cultures they don’t understand” feel more like a pointed bit of self-criticism than Nicolas-Troyan and his collaborators likely intended.
The film works best as an enjoyable — if by-the-numbers — popcorn thriller. Its attempts at social commentary and emotional profundity fall flat, and the various twists and turns it takes should be easy to see coming for anyone who has seen more than a handful of action movies.
In most instances, such faults would sink a movie like Kate. But every time it looks like the film might succumb to its more formulaic, clichéd instincts, there’s Winstead at the ready, potent enough to lift it back up again.
Kate debuts Friday, September 10th on Netflix.