Kate (2021)

There’s No Time For Mercy

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the titular Kate, an assassin raised from a young age by her handler, Varrick (Woody Harrelson), to be a consummate killing machine. After a job in Osaka to off a high-ranking Yakuza member sees her whack the mark in front of his tween daughter, Kate decides that it’ll soon be time to retire, even though Varrick (and that must be a nod to the 1973 Don Siegel/Walter Matthau banger Charley Varrick, yeah?) advises her that she’ll be back to killing people after one visit to a Walmart.

There must, of course, be one last job, and it’s when she’s prepping for this final mission that Kate finds herself slipped a radioactive mickey. With only 24 hours to live, she swipes a fistful of symptom-suppressing uppers and proceeds to kill her way up the Japanese crime food chain in the name of vengeance. In doing so, she finds herself captor/carer for Ani (Miku Martineau), who is a) the niece of Yakuza boss Kijima (Jun Kunimura), the man most likely responsible for her terminal condition, and b) the girl whose dad she popped in the opening scene.

Killer Kate

Kate contains a lot of familiar elements. One of the most prominent is the “before I die” mission model, which you’ll know from Crank (2006) with Jason Statham, but is best espoused in the 1950 noir potboiler D.O.A. (which has fallen out of copyright, so feel no guilt in watching it here). Our hero is on a terminal clock and has something very important to do before they keel over. It’s not always fatal in the end (John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, 1981), and it’s not necessarily a roaring rampage of revenge (Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, 1952, to keep the Japanese connection), but time is a finite resource.

The other big one is “the killer and the kid,” which you’ll know from Lone Wolf and Cub (1972), Léon: The Professional (1994), Logan (2017), Man on Fire (2004), and countless other iterations — the gruff demeanor and lethal skills of the warrior contrasted and sometimes leavened by the innocence and unconditional love of a younger ward. These are both well-worn tropes, but they get used a lot because they work, and they work here.

‘You’re so cool. But you’re also a Terminator b*tch.’

Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016), has cobbled together a jalopy of a film from a disparate array of spare parts, but it still runs and runs well. This isn’t the first time we’ve had an American film tear through Japan even this year, but Kate makes better use of the setting than Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins did, all pink and purple neon and vertiginously tall and narrow alleys, peppered with opaque logos and pop culture tchotchkes that make the whole thing ring a very early-William-Gibson-sounding bell.

The action is better, too. On occasion, it’s clear that a stunt performer is doing what we want to believe Winstead is doing, but coordinator Jonathan Eusebio, who has put John Wick, Jason Bourne, and the Toretto crew through their paces at one time or another, stages his combat with flair, clarity, and imagination, while Winstead displays grit-teeth confidence and deadly grace throughout. The violence is quick, brutal, and bloody — why stab a guy once when you can do it a dozen times? Why use a knife when the stem of a broken wineglass — or two — is a flicked wrist away? There are some great little gags in the mix, bits of business that will elicit a cheer and wince simultaneously.

She’s got you in her sights.

A lot of that happens to Kate, who gets put through the wringer to shocking degree. It’s not a million miles away from the initial (and now abandoned) appeal of Die Hard’s John McClane: the hero is bowed but unbroken, a gun-toting Energizer bunny who keeps going and going and going no matter how much punishment is dealt out to them. Charlize Theron is arguably the leading female light in this particular style of action narrative, as seen in Atomic Blonde (2017) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), but her triumph in those films was largely a given. As Kate, Winstead gets really fucked up. Already scarred and lean, she’s stabbed, shot, beaten, irradiated, the latter visibly spreading across her chest and neck. She spends the climactic sequence with one eye bloodshot and staring. Her impending death is not abstract; it’s made palpable, physical, and impossible to ignore.

Normally the crux of this sort of thing would be the relationship between the killer and the kid, in this case, Kate and Ari, and although that’s there and Martineau does reasonably well with her Yakuza princess role within the constraints of that character type, here it’s not the whole ball of wax. We actually get a better, more meaningful emotional exchange between Winstead and veteran Japanese actor Kunimura when Kate finally confronts Kijima than we ever do between Winstead and Martineau. There are themes of loyalty and fidelity in play, with Kate as the freshly minted ronin railing against a world that has betrayed her, and Kijima as the film’s representation of old school Yakuza/samurai honor and duty. The film also ruminates on the potentially toxic nature of traditional family models; Harrelson’s Varrick calls himself Kate’s mother and father, but his guardianship has brought her nothing but a life of murder and detachment, while Ari finds herself on the run from the very family — criminal family, to be fair, but still family — sworn to protect her.

‘Who took my Boom Boom Lemon?’

Which means there’s a bit more going on here than first taste might have you believe, and that’s without even going into the queer reading of the androgynous Kate and all that bisexual lighting. The individual thematic elements are not too original on their own, but in combination, they give the film an interesting and novel flavor. Kate is a solid effort, and Winstead’s ability to elicit real emotion and empathy in the midst of all this enjoyably stylized and frenetic action elevates it above the pack. Taken as a whole, it’s not quite in New Classic territory, but for action fans, it’s definitely worth a look.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Kate is currently streaming on Netflix