It’s a bit odd that Netflix would release Kate barely a few months after its extremely similar female assassin goes rogue film, Gunpowder Milkshake, as both feature a lady assassin, double-crosses, wide scale mayhem, and the assassin growing a heart by taking care of a young charge. But tonally the two movies are rather different; Gunpowder Milkshake was a big cartoon while this movie is much more gritty and features the protagonist rather graphically falling apart as the movie goes on. Kate is a bit on the grim side but has decent action and a fine performance by the lead. There’s a distinctly Eastern flair to the film with Samurai swordplay along with Western gunfights. It isn’t exactly the most fun action movie ever, but it has some decent bite when the bullets start flying. Which is happily rather often.
Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an assassin who tells her handler, Varrick (Woody Harrelson) that she wants out of the killing game. Unfortunately, she is soon poisoned by radiation and only has 24 hours to live. The man responsible is Kijima (Jun Kunimura), a criminal boss and brother of another criminal she killed. To find Kijima, she locates his niece, Ani (Miku Martineau), who witnessed her father’s assassination years ago by the sniper shot of Kate. Kate thinks using Ani as bait will get her to the boss but the criminal underling Renji (Tadanobu Asano) has more nefarious plans. So Kate will have to shoot her way past an incredible amount of people to achieve her revenge before her body literally falls apart from radiation poisoning.
Winstead in the title role is great. It’s a snarky, snappy, moody, and physical performance. She spends an incredible amount of time coughing up blood and looking like hell as the radiation works its way through Kate’s body. Probably the best bit she does in the flick is during a raging gunfight she faces down a guy who runs out of bullets and just simply snaps “Boo!” at him which causes him to fall backwards in terror. Like many an assassin grows a heart of gold stories, she takes care of a young charge who turns out to be the kid of someone she assassinated previously. Gunpowder Milkshake did this exact same thing which is a bit weird to see the same plot coming so quickly from another Netflix flick. It’s an okay plot contrivance but feels rote.
Martineau as the kid strikes a good balance of being a properly irritating teenager and eventually sympathetic. There is a lot of whining and crying throughout the film from her which makes it rather cathartic when Kate snaps at her for yapping too much. As the big bad gangster that Kate is tracking down, Kunimura gets in a great monologue about all the things that have gone wrong with his life and family legacy. It’s a quiet performance spoken entirely in Japanese but the power still resonates. Asano plays his upstart underling and saves his best stuff for his final scene when he gets in a searing confrontation with his boss. The other biggest star in the movie is Harrelson as Kate’s handler and he gets to run a gamut from fatherly to menacing. There’s an early scene when Harrelson is talking about respecting one’s elders which is trite writing but he sells it. Later on, as things get messier the nastier side of Varrick comes out which Harrelson is also very good at. While the characters of Kate and Varrick may be cobbled together clichés from other action movies, both thespians make their scenes interesting because they’re just really good performers.
Entertainingly, the dual climatic confrontations bounce between Eastern swordplay and Western gunfights. It shows how the movie is blending the two genre influences and both are uniquely brief. Also they end with decapitations and gut shots which are impressively brutal. There is quite a lot of messy violence here. It definitely leans more towards the John Wick style of brutality, although maybe this film decided to go with the whole “24 hours to live” conceit before one of the John Wick sequels got to it first.
The action scenes in Kate are nicely bombastic. She has a few brawls that go on for a very long time. And there are nifty interrogation scenes where she’ll pop one baddie in the head and then turn to the next one to extract information as the guy whines about her turning his friend into a corpse. One moment in the film that’s really awkward is when Kate jumps into a car for a neon-glow soaked high-speed chase and it looks awful. It seems there were no real cars involved at all and just really badly rendered CGI fake cars. For a movie that gets by on brutal immediacy and reality of messy violence, having Kate jump into a CGI car suddenly turns it into an early 2000s video game.
Kate may be a bit behind the curve in the assassin action genre. There really isn’t anything original in this flick that hasn’t been done already. But it’s done with some determination to make it properly nasty and hard-hitting which makes the film a decent, if ultimately forgettable, action entry.
Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Miku Martineau and Woody Harrelson