There is precisely one thing that makes Netflix’s latest action flick work, and that’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Well, you could argue the action itself is pretty OK, and I’ll get to that, but I still think it wouldn’t work half so well without Winstead anchoring the proceedings. The reason is two-fold: First, Kate itself is a movie you’ve almost certainly seen before, and I mean that literally. I considered turning this review into a Top Ten list of other movies that either inspired, are directly referenced, or just mysteriously happen to cover the exact same ground as Kate. The premise is tried and true, in that it’s true that it’s been tried a bunch. And that’s fine! That’s something I could say about a lot of movies — including some of the very same movies Kate is pulling from! The point is that when you’re dealing with a Xerox of a Xerox, anything that survives the transfer in sharp focus will naturally draw the eye. This brings me to the second reason: Mary Elizabeth Winstead DRAWS THE DAMN EYE. Saying she’s the best part of the movie isn’t saying much at all, and saying that she elevates the movie implies that she lifts it up. No, the movie is still what it is, but what she accomplishes is potentially harder. She does exactly what the movie itself is doing — referencing a lot of different source material — only BETTER. She performs some kind of alchemy that makes Kate’s whole schtick seem somehow smarter than it is because while the movie is busily retreading tired ground, she’s out here traipsing on wired ground.
Basically: Kate is watered-down Crank by way of Kill Bill Vol. 1, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead turns it into an excuse to play the spiritual successor to Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. Sure, she and the movie both owe a debt to their cinematic antecedents, but the difference is that Kate just made me want to watch the real deal (which isn’t hard — I ponder Crank: High Voltage at least once per day as is) while Winstead made me want to see HER given a shot at being the real deal. We don’t exactly have a lack of women in action roles, but I can’t think of a single one who scratches that specific Sigourney Weaver itch. An itch I didn’t even realize I had until I saw this movie.
[Checks clock] Alright fine, let’s talk about Kate then. The movie comes from director
Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, whose previous credit was 2016’s desperation sequel The Huntsman: Winter’s War, and the script was penned by Umair Aleem, whose previous credit was Extraction (no not that one, an even WORSE one starring Bruce Willis, Kellan Lutz, and Gina Carano if you can believe it). The plot follows an assassin named — yup, you guessed it! — Kate (Winstead), who is suffering from an unwanted attack of conscience after she completed a job that involved killing a man in front of his teenage daughter Ani (Miku Martineau). That man was the brother of the head of a big yakuza clan. It’s a real chicken-egg situation: She’s either taking down yakuza because she’s in Japan, or she’s in Japan because she needs to take down yakuza! We don’t get enough context to know which, so let’s toss out the chicken and the egg and just assume it’s for ATMOSPHERE. Anyway, Woody Harrelson plays Varrick, Kate’s handler/father figure, and when she confesses that she’s thinking about quitting the killing biz to try and live a normal life he gets her to hold out for one last job. THE last job. Killing the head of the clan. It’ll kinda put a bow on their whole Japan tour or something.
Anyway, Kate meets Michiel Huisman at a bar and sleeps with him (duh), then gets her mission confirmation and heads out with her sniper rifle. Only she botches the job because she’s suddenly come down with a terminal case of radiation sickness … because Michiel Huisman poisoned her. I mean, he spiked her drink or something, he didn’t slip her a plutonium dick or anything (I think?). So, she’s got a ticking clock of about a day to figure out who paid her one-night stand to kill her, only she thinks she already knows. It’s the yakuza boss, right? RIGHT? So obviously she needs to kidnap Ani to get his whereabouts, then form an unwanted attachment with the plucky teen, and then save the girl’s life while her uncle’s goons try to kill her too, all while pushing down her own guilt over killing Ani’s dad in the first place. Kate plows through wave after wave of henchmen in her pursuit of… either finishing her job or getting revenge for her own protracted murder, or both, it’s a little muddled. And then backstabbing, double-crossing, and some easily anticipated reveals ensue.
A hitman who is poisoned and forced to continue pumping themselves full of adrenaline? That’s Crank. An assassin who kills a girl’s dad, then ends up taking the girl under her wing? Netflix just did that with Gunpowder Milkshake. A white woman on a mission of revenge, splattering blood across shoji doors? Heck, Kate is even wearing a pair of Onitsuka Tiger sneakers, the exact same style that Uma Thurman wore in Kill Bill but with a different color scheme (pretty sure nobody is allowed to wear the yellow ones again on screen, though you can still buy them!). There’s a weird CGI car chase that gave me Speed Racer flashbacks — the movie, yes, but also the anime. Or any anime! At one point early on there’s a cartoon projected on the side of a high-rise (I am pretty sure it was Tokyo Ghoul), and from that point on it’s almost impossible not to see the anime influence on the staging of the action sequences, from the off-kilter camera angles to the way the shot slows down as Kate falls or shoves a knife through someone’s skull. It’s stylized but still gritty, shootouts mixed with bone-crunching fisticuffs, and Kate staggers through it all on pure instinct even as her body fails her.
The fact that Kate makes it to the final showdown is hardly a surprise since, as I said, we’ve seen this all before. Yet there is real, palpable tension in her journey purely because Winstead is able to project every ounce of pain and perseverance, alongside the sort of fear and loneliness you don’t usually see from your action heroes. She isn’t shaking off the hits or the poison, and her wounds don’t seem to just get lost after enough script pages or scene changes. If the movie bothered to invest in the story enough to provide some context for all this, it might at least get a little closer to John Wick. As it is, it makes me eager to see what the DCEU will do for Winstead’s Huntress, after her scene-stealing debut in Birds of Prey, but it also makes me curious what else Hollywood will throw at her. We have plenty of action movies, from superheroes to heroes that may as well be super. What Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton brought to Alien and The Terminator was something else — something we don’t have in abundance anymore. They made Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor icons, and in turn gave the films the oomph they needed to sustain whole franchises, not by being indomitable but by being so very human. Theirs was an everyday strength, harder than most but hardly mythic. It’s that quality that Mary Elizabeth Winstead brings to Kate, and while the movie didn’t deserve it, I hope somebody out there was paying attention because if she could do THAT in THIS crap? Just imagine what she could do with a script that’s worthy.
Kate is streaming on Netflix as of Sept. 10, 2021.
Header Image Source: Netflix Media Center