It’s very difficult to make a movie about a revenge-seeking assassin with any semblance of originality, because the subgenre has been done to death. As some sort of labored compromise, Netflix’s new actioner Kate doesn’t even try. It’s entertaining in points, boasts a fiercely committed central performance and some well-choreographed set pieces, but everything else from the plot and dialogue to character motivations and resolutions are paint-by-numbers filmmaking at its most mediocre.
There are three films in particular that stand out as the most prominent influences on Kate, and only one of them hails from Netflix. Similar to Chris Hemsworth’s Extraction, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s title hero is a highly-trained operative in a foreign land, who gets drawn into a combination of rescue mission and fight for survival, all while trying to protect a teenager.
The second is Jason Statham’s demented Crank; in that Kate’s been poisoned and has 24 hours to gain a measure of retribution before her heart stops, with regular shots keeping her alive just that little bit longer, adding a ticking time bomb element to the narrative.
The third is obviously John Wick, via a succession of neon-lit scraps that rely heavily on the use of everyday objects as weapons, with David Leitch and Kelly McCormick’s 87North Productions even involved on the producorial side of things. The main problem with Kate isn’t just that you’ve seen this done before, you’ve also seen it done much better on many more occasions.
The one saving grace of Kate is Winstead herself, who once again proves her action hero chops in spectacular fashion. Our protagonist is about as one-dimensional as it gets, having been recruited as a child and trained in her death-dealing ways like so many before her in the genre, but the actress at least manages to imbue her with some degree of humanity. She elevates what’s on the page substantially, and gives as good as she gets in the fight scenes.
Battered, beaten, bloodied or bruised; it doesn’t matter, Kate still manages to barely scrape through each confrontation despite having the odds heavily stacked against her. Not to point out a recurring issue, but almost as soon as the first scene is over, you know exactly where things are heading, who’s responsible for her predicament and ultimately the way the climactic face off is resolved, but it’s fun to watch Winstead get there regardless.
Kate is planning to retire, and after executing a hit in Osaka she’s filled with regret, letting her handler Varrick (played by Woody Harrelson on typically reliable form) know that she’s planning to get out of the murdering business. As we all know, nobody in the assassination game gets to retire peacefully, so her pre-emptive death is set in motion.
Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan acquits himself well with the regular hand-to-hand and bullet-to-head interludes, but for whatever reason there’s a car chase at the end of the first act that looks terrible. It’s been ripped right out of a video game cut scene, and it’s jarring to see such a blatant use of awful CGI in what initially set out a stall as a relatively grounded and gritty tale of revenge. Thankfully, that’s the only egregious use of visual effects, with Kate relying entirely on the practical outside of that single brief and very jarring segue.
A Hollywood production once again wastes Tadanobu Asano, who was recently seen being relegated to the primary deliverer of exposition in Mortal Kombat having contributed almost nothing to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Hogun of the Warriors Three, but Japanese legend Jun Kunimura at least manages to bring plenty of gravitas to his role as the veteran head of a crime family, while the initially-grating Miku Martineau grows on you as young Ani’s arc progresses.
Kate takes itself very seriously at points with little in the way of levity, and while we’re not saying that every action-heavy movie needs a well-placed quip or two, everything is so solemn in between the exaggerated brawls, eye-popping scenery and blood-soaked body count that the pace slows to a crawl when nobody’s getting their ass kicked. Maybe it’s intended to add an extra layer of gravitas to Kate’s situation, but it regularly takes all of the wind out of the film’s sails instead, which is a shame because there are regular bursts of frenzied momentum that show plenty of promise.
Nobody minds paper-thin plotting in excessive genre movies; in fact, it’s something we’ve all come to expect, especially when it comes to Netflix’s mid budget offerings. However, Kate is almost derivative and uninspired to a fault. Winstead is nothing short of fantastic in terms of both her physical and performative presence, but she could have really used a meatier journey to sink her teeth into.
A fantastic performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead and some well-staged action can't prevent Kate from falling into over-familiar and derivative territory.